Norwich City is entering a new phase of Championship warfare
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Peace and goodwill was in short supply towards Millwall on a Boxing Day that signalled the end of the phoney war period in the Championship.
Norwich have smashed Huddersfield and now the Lions out of sight at Carrow Road. In between they earned a point at Derby after a previous away success at Wigan, yet all that rich seam of productivity has merely carried them to the fringes of the top six.
Which perhaps says much about the prolonged nature of the fallow period that preceded it. City's potent intensity is being matched by an ever decreasing pool of promotion rivals.
The top four all won on Boxing Day as Neil Adams' squad were torturing the Lions, aided by generous levels of festive charity that should worry Ian Holloway, even if Millwall's boss refused to blame David Forde for the keeper's aberration not once but twice. By that stage Cameron Jerome had sliced two strikes into the home terracing and Gary Hooper's close range finish was adjudged to be offside.
It was a ferocious onslaught before Norwich toyed with their prey once they had established a two-goal lead prior to unleashing another second-half salvo.
Millwall would consider themselves fortunate to escape with just a five-goal pummelling. Holloway's public utterances on the eve of this game over the distance his side were expected to travel on Boxing Day exhibited distress signals that Norwich brutally upon. The trek back to London will have felt a good deal longer given the manner of his side's capitulation.
Norwich, in truth, had only a minimal obstacle to clear but they have stumbled too often this season when the superiority of their football has demanded an emphatic margin of victory.
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That clinical edge is back and sharper than ever. City have goals from multiple sources allied to a defensive solidity and pleasing familiarity across midfield.
Alex Tettey's absence was never going to bite. Not when Adams can switch Jonny Howson alongside Gary O'Neil and recall Nathan Redmond; with Wes Hoolahan deployed for the final quarter when the game was long since up and the Irishman could profit from the wide open spaces.
After so many matches when the spotlight was harsh, the mood ugly, the focus critical there is plenty to admire about the Canaries right now. Huddersfield and Millwall offered limp resistance but they were dealt with dismissively. Derby was a far tougher proposition but City deserved at least a point for their efforts in the East Midlands.
Norwich look a cohesive unit. They look like a group of players and management who share a common purpose. The self-belief has returned, the confidence has been topped up and in this moment they look capable of solving any puzzle put in front of them.
But scan the top end of the division and they are not the only ones. Bournemouth and Ipswich continue to maintain a consistency that is a prerequisite for sides hunting promotion.
The Rams and Middlesbrough possess the midfield creativity and the attacking power to eclipse most in the second tier. Norwich know that only too well after a chastening visit to the north-east, which Adams maintains is only one of two occasions to this halfway stage of the Championship season when his side failed to perform.
The defining battles lie ahead but Norwich have re-established contact with the leading candidates and they have nothing to fear from any of them. Perhaps only Bournemouth can muster the same prolific atttacking potential in their ranks given the scale of some Cherries' league wins.
Adams has rightly highlighted the richness of his rivals' resources in recent times when constantly reminded about City's talent pool, but undeniably that depth must enhance Norwich's chances. Few of those who will fight it out alongisde them over the coming months possess the same breadth of alternative options.
At the outset of this campaign, Norwich's winning surge rested on the goalscoring exploits of Lewis Grabban. Then Jerome moved centre stage, now Hooper is underlining what everyone inside Norfolk knew when he first moved south from Celtic. A fit and firing Hooper will score goals. The 26-year-old was purchased to plunder in the Premier League, but he will get the chance again with the Canaries should he produce more Millwall-class displays between now and May.
Hooper's finishing was not at his clinical best against the Lions but there was plenty to admire in his ability to drop deep and link the play; to knit City's frontline and midfield with his intelligent movement. The turn and acceleration just inside the Millwall half that invited the overlapping Bradley Johnson forward to thump home Norwich's third was an intervention of the highest quality.
Sadly it is inevitable Hooper and some Norwich team mates will be touted with January transfer exits. Adams and City's top brass should take that as a positive sign. Few of his squad would have been in demand prior to this latest upturn. Now the Canaries are upwardly mobile again but there can be no relapse with their promotion rivals firmly in sight.