Melissa Rudd: Norwich City must hit top gear at Forest
There is one word that every football fan dreads seeing in a headline about their club during the international break. Especially when it precedes the name of your team's top scorer.
Teemu Pukki’s ‘injury’ scare for Finland a few days ago was one of those that prompted more cursing of City’s bad luck. A in-form striker who had yet again scored a winner for his country in the previous game was forced off after just 12 minutes in the next.
The Finland manager’s comments afterwards, that his star man was removed more as a precaution after feeling cramp in his leg against Greece, sounded a lot more promising.
It remains to be confirmed if Pukki will be available for selection against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, but Norwich will need to be at the top of the game at the City Ground. Forest are yet to lose a game there this season, and have scored 13 in their last six at home in all competitions.
Even with Pukki in the team, City need players around him to chip in with goals.
Norwich have scored just 15 in 12 games and the 2-0 win over Preston remains the only time the winning margin has exceeded one goal in the league.
Saturday’s opponent’s meanwhile have scored six in their past three matches. Aitor Karanka indulged in a summer spending spree akin to that of Wolves in the previous campaign. Like the 2017-18 Championship title winners, they raided the Portuguese market for Joao Carvalho and winger Diogo Gonçalves and spent over £25 million, including £6m on former Canary Lewis Grabban.
After only winning one of their first six, Forest are unbeaten since the first international break in September. Like Karanka, Daniel Farke used that fortnight to address some of his own side’s failings.
Norwich conceded 12 goals in their first six games, and have conceded just three in the same number of matches since.
It really feels now that this City team have a solid backbone. Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis have nailed down the full-back positions, while the central pairing of Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmerman have benefitted from far more confident performances of Tim Krul in goal.
If he can replicate the consistency that made him a Premier League regular at Newcastle then Farke will have one of the division’s best goalkeepers guarding his net.
There are parallels with the same period last season of course, where a much more watertight defence conceded just one goal in six games before the second international break.
The return also coincided with a League Cup fixture against a Premier League side. That unlucky defeat at The Emirates sparked a freefall in league form.
It was a nightmare that Farke will be desperate not to relive, but with Forest, Villa and Brentford all to be faced before the trip to Bournemouth, any thoughts of claiming another Cup scalp are firmly on hold.
With Dean Smith leaving Brentford to replace Steve Bruce at Villa, it will be fascinating to see the trajectory of both teams with new men at the helm, especially given the fact that Norwich face them at Carrow Road in successive games.
Only two points separate sixth and 12th place, and with a quarter of the season now played it’s an early barometer of just how tight the race for the play-off places is likely to be come May.
With three of City’s four upcoming matches being against teams currently above them in the table, the next few weeks will give us a much better idea of where Farke’s side fall among the contenders.