Danger lurks in Norwich City’s Championship promotion surge
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Tempting though it is to look ahead and savour a concerted Championship promotion push Norwich City should linger in the moment of another memorable derby day offering.
Bragging rights perhaps were a delicious side dish to the main event now unfolding on a thrilling ride which appears to gather speed and intensity by the match.
Alex Neil is guiding not only his players but those who follow them on an intoxicating journey that shows no signs of running out of energy any time soon.
When Norwich confront an obstacle in this current mood they find a way around or simply over the top under the astute Scot.
After the manner Brentford triumphed very early in his tenure there was a genuine sense of unease prior to the recent visit of another promotion rival in Wolves. The talk then was of trying to crack the top six. How limited an objective that appears now in light of what has transpired since.
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Kenny Jackett's men were dealt with almost in dismissive fashion. Yet that only brought free-scoring Watford into sharper focus on their own turf. Neil altered his shape to frustrate and City cut loose at Vicarage Road with a degree of attacking intent that has been their hallmark from the opening salvos of a season which is now bubbling to a fitting climax.
FA Cup quarter-finalists Blackburn, on a long midweek ascent to Lancashire, carried the potential for disappointment, but even after a cheap concession from a first-half free-kick at Ewood Park, Norwich's new-found belief engineered a controlled response capped by Bradley Johnson's wondrous finish.
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That body of work created the conditions for a derby duel of epic proportions against an Ipswich side who, for the first time in many a season, harbour their own realistic Premier League aims under the teak-tough Mick McCarthy.
Ipswich proved every bit as stubborn and physically imposing as they were at Portman Road in the corresponding fixture, but again Norwich had the class and the composure once they had repelled the bludgeon and the blunt instruments of Daryl Murphy and his fellow battalions.
Town's robust approach to their craft may have proved residually effective to this stage of the campaign but with Johnson, Alex Tettey and Jonny Howson an effective fighting unit in those midfield skirmishes, and Seb Bassong and Russell Martin once again a resolute barrier, there was only one likely outcome.
Johnson is a force of nature at present; his career-best tally of 10 goals reached with another breathtakingly accurate finish that hit the back of the net at high velocity before Bartosz Bialkowski could raise both arms in a forlorn attempt to stop the midfielder's left-footed strike.
The former Arsenal trainee is the heartbeat of the Neil era; a pulsing, vibrant, fearless approach to the task of hauling themselves firmly back into promotion contention.
McCarthy's players trooped wearily in the direction of their away support on the final whistle before a handshake in the vicinity of the centre circle with the beaten Yorkshireman, but both knew they had met a superior foe. Just like at Portman Road.
Neil may well possess the best squad in the Championship, but that alone does not guarantee Norwich a top-flight return.
Much like at Blackburn they had to hold firm to quell an aerial bombardment in front of John Ruddy, who underlined his value with a superb first-half intervention to prevent Freddie Sears dragging Ipswich level in the one genuine alarm.
If it was not Johnson sensing danger, it was Tettey throwing his body in the line of fire to thwart Jonathan Parr; that intangible team spirit which every successful side must harness but for the majority remains frustratingly elusive. Norwich have it now and that is a testament to Neil's powers of persuasion to meld a dressing room who by their performances of late exhibit a belief that had dissipated during the bad times.
The path ahead has opened up after a sixth consecutive league victory. Derby and Middlesbrough will hardly relish a trip to these parts, where they can expect another raucous Carrow Road occasion and a group of young men lying in wait.
Neil was quick in the warm afterglow of his first East Anglian derby success to stress complacency is the biggest enemy now.
Many expect struggling Wigan and Millwall to be dismissed, but these are the games that could well define Norwich's final outcome. Just like Ipswich, shootouts against prospective promotion rivals will focus the minds of those inside and outside the club.
After the euphoric high of another deserved victory over their Suffolk neighbours, Norwich must return to terra firma at a rate of knots to prepare for a less glamorous but equally pivotal home date against Malky Mackay's Latics.
A Brentford blip aside, Neil and his players have delivered the answers. The finishing line looms on the horizon, but it would be a huge risk to stray from the present.