Norwich City must set sights on top six
Into the final third of the season now and it's all about wins, so at least we managed one this week.
Make no mistake, had Henri Lansbury not scored against Millwall last Tuesday, defeat at Burnley would have been a very bad result. We'd now have been sixth, nervously looking over our shoulders after a winless three-match run.
As it was, a point would have been nice, but the only real damage that has been done is that it's slightly dented our somewhat faint top-two chances and brought Burnley that bit more into play-off contention.
An away defeat was coming. City's all-out approach on their travels must surely catch up with them; players must be running on empty after performing right to the 94th minute of some games, while heavy pitches and conditions such as those at Burnley won't help either.
Tuesday's win put the spectre of relegation to bed for all those mathematicians in the football world, so it's now on to the next target: 75 points for the top six.
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That's eight victories from 16 games in a three-month spell in which we face bottom-half Bristol City, Derby, Doncaster, Preston and Scunthorpe at home and fading Portsmouth – still only two goalkeepers and 19 outfield players listed on their website, I see.
That's six matches for starters which we ought to be winning, and that's not including a perhaps nothing-to-play-for fixture at home to Coventry on the last day just in case of its banana-skin potential.
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All games which ought to be less daunting than a trip to Turf Moor, and its ugly crowd – it must have been a novel experience for Adam Drury to be booed every time he touched the ball – and heavy pitch.
The last time we lost an away game we were well off the pace of the top two and, despite standing fifth, only three points ahead of 12th-placed Leeds and possibly doubting our top-six credentials.
However, Saturday's defeat hardly derails our season, as anyone who has seen City on the road this season would testify. They were poor goals to give away, and I can't blame Paul Lambert for ringing the changes in the first half, but you can't nick late wins like those at Coventry and Sheffield United in every away game, even allowing for our second-half dominance.
The fact that we had only one goal – although what a goal – to show for that purple patch just reinforces that the difference between being certain of a place in the top six and needing a 2002-type late surge could be what happens when the emergency loan market reopens.
I'm not fussed about midfield – as long as Andrew Surman becomes available soon, as his return will be like making a new signing as he's made just six City appearances – but do we need a bit of a spark up front?
Maybe Hull have left it too late for this season, but you just look at the impact that Matty Fryatt has had since his move from Leicester, as an example.
Okay, perhaps a �1.2m fee is out of the league that Alan Bowkett was talking about last month when he said: 'You might take a risk and find some investment or create some more cash to support Paul Lambert, because we're performing ahead of budget.'
Fryatt has now scored six goals in as many games for the newly-solvent again Tigers. How we could do with that kind of guaranteed goals source up front.
But I'm guessing we don't have that sort of finance available, so it's a case of relying on the tremendous team spirit which has got us to where we are.
That's made us hard to beat, but we don't have enough quality in the final third – which I'm afraid is why we couldn't wrap up a seventh away win of the season after battling our way back into contention at Turf Moor.
• MR FEBRUARY'S DEPARTURE WAS CERTAINLY A BIG SURPRISE
And so the curse of the NCFC calendar goes on.
After the 2010 publication – featuring such bit-part players as Jamie Cureton, Matt Gill (Mr February), and Cody McDonald, each of whom failed to make any appearances during their featured months – the latest issue looked rather more balanced, as though the compilers had spoken to Paul Lambert to get some inkling of his team plans for the coming months.
Drury, Nelson, Chris Martin, Hoolahan and Holt had seemed quite a sensible choice of subjects for the first five months of the season. Until last week, that is.
Michael Nelson's entire time at Carrow Road was marked by surprises, with this year's Mr February's departure, announced a matter of minutes before the end of the transfer window on January 31, being the latest.
It was a surprise when he figured again in a City shirt after the Colchester defeat, as it was that it was he who scored the promotion-securing goal at Charlton goal and was able to make the adjustment to Championship football.
With the Canaries' rapid climb up the league ladder it's no surprise that there has been an equally quick – and ongoing – overhaul of the Carrow Road squad, so it wasn't unexpected that men such as Nelson might be moving on. But Lambert's public tribute to his former defender after the Millwall game spoke volumes about why a limited City squad of players are in a lofty position that they undoubtedly shouldn't be. No use of deliberately obvious terms such as Tweedledum or Tweedledee, it plainly showed that he is an expert man manager, for whom players really want to play for.
Of course, the Nelson surprises aren't over yet. While it's to be expected that he'll get a good reception at the Norwich v Scunthorpe match in April – possibly unlike other visiting players – it would be no surprise if he scored on his first visit to a former club, just as he did at Hartlepool last season.
• LET'S HOPE SPECULATION IS SHORT-LIVED
And so it begins again... Will West Brom's decision to axe Roberto Di Matteo lead to fresh speculation about Paul Lambert?
You can only hope that this gets knocked on the head pretty quickly.
City have been forced to play at the top of their game in recent weeks due to their all-action attitude and could have done with a distraction-free midweek ahead of a home game against awkward opposition.
After all, you can't help but think that, from a supporter's perspective, that the Burnley episode didn't exactly help the build-up to the Leyton Orient FA Cup tie.
We'll have to hope that will not get a repeat this week, especially since West Brom looked to the likes of Hibernian and MK Dons for their last two managerial appointments, ie to up-and-coming candidates who have had success outside the Premier League.
Perhaps they might like to consider the very good job that Gus Poyet is currently doing at Brighton...
• BETTER LINE-UP
Late Kick Off returns for a second season, and a lot better it is now that the presenting duties, shall we say, have become a bit more balanced in terms of club backgrounds.
After all, this week showed just how much clubs such as the Canaries can do with a bit of external publicity. A Tuesday night with both Premier League and Championship action and plenty of the national press don't bother with anything outside the top flight.
But a couple of weeks in, and it gets replaced by a repeat of a Super Bowl backgrounder. Marvellous. So much for a national commitment to local coverage.
• A slight black mark for Jake Humphrey in Sunday's BBC coverage of Swansea v Cardiff in failing to make anything of the fact that Craig Bellamy has been known to score away winners in hotly-contested local derbies before. A certain game at Portman Road in 1998 immediately springs to mind...
• RAW EMOTION
Two thoughts about that Millwall victory:
Firstly the way Henri Lansbury was celebrating suggests that possibly, as a loan player, he might be slightly more committed to the Canaries' cause than, ooh, rather a lot of names we could mention including some of an Antipodean background.
And secondly, a word about the refereeing of P Miller.
He might have been a bit whistle happy during the regular 90 minutes, but if he hadn't have added on an additional few seconds for Millwall's stoppage-time substitution we wouldn't have won.
Surely now after all the dramatic finishes we've had over the last couple of seasons there can't be anything to top that one, can there?