Five games which will test Norwich City’s promotion credentials to the limit
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Ahead of a testing run of fixtures against promotion rivals, David Freezer takes a closer look at the games which could well shape the rest of the Championship campaign for Norwich City.
While defeat in the FA Cup may have been a disappointment for Norwich City, it did at least allow some of Daniel Farke's key players a rest at a vital time.
With the halfway point of the season passed just before Christmas, an intense period of four games in 11 days pushed the Canaries squad to its limits, as injury issues mounted.
With no midweek game this week either it has allowed Farke's team to focus fully on a run of fixtures which could well prove decisive to hopes of staying in the hunt for automatic promotion.
First up is fourth-placed West Brom, who sit just three points further back, followed by home games against fellow promotion hopefuls Birmingham and Sheffield United, and a tough trip to current leaders Leeds.
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It tees City up for a block of games from which a healthy return of points would not only leave them in a stronger position, but weaken that of their rivals.
Following those four games is the small matter of the East Anglian derby at Carrow Road, with Ipswich desperately searching for a foothold as they continue to tumble towards League One.
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Here's a look at the fixtures which could well make or break the Canaries' campaign...
Sat, Jan 12 – West Brom (a)
Fresh from 10 seasons in the Premier League, the Baggies have shaken off their relegation hangover impressively under club legend Darren Moore.
The division's top scorers have clocked up 54 goals from their 26 matches so far this season, with strikers Dwight Gayle and James Rodriguez both having netted 13 league goals.
City were given an early taste of that when they were beaten 4-3 at Carrow Road by Albion back in August.
Their goals return is six better than City and both have conceded 34, teeing up a clash at The Hawthorns that could make a huge difference in the automatic promotion race.
Fri, Jan 18 – Birmingham (h)
Twice pegged back by late Onel Hernandez goals in a 2-2 draw at St Andrew's on the opening day of the season, Garry Monk's team have made a mockery of relegation predictions amid financial problems.
A transfer embargo left the Blues facing a bleak campaign but a strong defensive record has Monk's team sat eighth and just four points outside the play-offs currently, after just one defeat in their last eight league games.
Only Middlesbrough (18) have conceded fewer than Birmingham, who are tied with Leeds, Sheffield United and Bristol City on 28 conceded so far.
However, they will arrive at Carrow Road for a televised clash under the Friday night floodlights with the Canaries looking to end a run of three home games without a win.
Sat, Jan 26 – Sheffield Utd (h)
Chris Wilder's surprise package are currently City's closest threat to second place, sat two points behind in third ahead of the resumption of league action.
A fine festive return of 10 points from a possible 12 has put the Blades in a strong position, only to slump to a 1-0 home defeat to non-league Barnet in the FA Cup third round on Sunday.
Showed their spirit against Norwich when winning 2-1 at Bramall Lane in August though, thanks to a late Billy Sharp winner.
Sat, Feb 2 – Leeds (a)
Marcelo Bielsa's team have been the standout side in the division so far this season and left City choking on their dust at Carrow Road in August, romping to a dominant 3-0 victory.
Now in their 15th season outside the Premier League, fans of the Yorkshire giants have been excited ever since a flying start to the season.
However, a shock 2-0 home loss to Hull and 4-2 defeat at Nottingham Forest, followed by an FA Cup exit at QPR, has certainly set alarm bells ringing at Elland Road.
Sun, Feb 10 – Ipswich (h)
The Tractor Boys are bottom, where they've been for most of the season, and 10 points adrift of safety. Add to that the longest unbeaten run in the history of the East Anglian derby in favour of City, 11 games, and there's only one team dreading the game: Norwich.
Town are likely to have nothing to lose and former Norwich boss Paul Lambert in charge. It should be an absolute home banker for the Canaries but nerves about the biggest of banana skins are sure to flare up.
'It would be typical to lose to Ipswich and get promoted' are words already uttered by plenty of City fans, but as long as promotion did follow, it's a disappointment which could be stomached.
Or, Norwich could smash their nearest rivals, put the first nail in their Championship coffin and continue on their merry way back to the Premier League. Either way, it's going to be a cracker of a game.