Norwich City look like they belong
It's not often that managers praise their opponents' effort, although in victory it's often easy to be patronisingly appreciative of their efforts.
Cardiff manager Dave Jones didn't sound particularly disingenuous or even remotely surprised as he assessed his team's 3-1 win over the Canaries on Saturday.
And neither should he be: Norwich, in the first half, were excellent, and only a referee who was rather too brisk in moving whistle to mouth ruined what might have been a fantastic second period. Had Norwich scored the fourth goal of the game – and at 2-1 down but in the ascendancy that was the more likely possibility – rather than Cardiff, then Queens Park Rangers might well be top of the Championship this morning.
The fates decreed, though, that the difference in current quality settled the issue – exemplified by seeing Cardiff do to City in the second half what City had done to Middlesbrough a week earlier.
So we've been to Loftus Road and we've been to Cardiff's nice new home – and we haven't seen City bulldozed. The reason they perhaps haven't won isn't entirely down to a bit of bad luck, but the fact that those two do actually have that little bit extra, the difference between another season in the Championship or the step up to the top flight.
Others will suffer at their hands because they are leading the charge for the Premier League, and it's a fight that demands the claws are out and the hackles raised as they bid for the biggest financial prize of them all.
Okay, we're still not quite a third of the way through the season, but part of the picture is emerging.
- 1 Woman in her 50s who died in A11 crash named locally
- 2 Train travellers set for another weekend of rail disruption
- 3 Woman in her 20s dies in A47 crash
- 4 The school where boys can wear skirts - but not shorts
- 5 Woman in serious condition in hospital after crash between two cars and van
- 6 Mum trying to find lost 'heart' of daughter who died days after birthday
- 7 North Norfolk pub re-opens as a hotel
- 8 Redundancy leads to Norfolk mum earning up to £3,000 a month
- 9 Abnormal load to travel through county on first day of Norfolk Show
- 10 North Norfolk glamping site named among best in the UK
Come January we will see the first signs of their intentions: QPR have the financial wherewithal to make a major impact on the transfer market should manager Neil Warnock decide he needs to add a little bit extra here and there to help secure that automatic promotion place. Cardiff seem to be able to pluck money off the trees, despite what seem to be regular flirtations with football's financial administrators.
They have new Malaysian owners, who helped lift the gloom of the summer when Jones' plans were hit by another transfer embargo after a delay in paying debts. Out went Peter Ridsale, in came Vincent Tan and with him came a clutch of top quality Premier League loan signings – most notably Craig Bellamy and Jason Koumas. That's hard for anyone to compete with.
The noises coming out of Cardiff suggest that Jones will have money to spend in January, but not headline-grabbing sums. Then again, a �2m transfer fee grabs more headlines than a loan player who costs a similar amount for half a season.
The top two certainly appear to be better equipped than any of the others.
So have we seen the best the Championship can offer? And do Norwich feel inferior? Yes and no would probably be the answers, certainly on the field of play.
Norwich have played 14 of their 23 rivals – Burnley, Millwall, Reading, Leeds, Ipswich, Derby, Portsmouth, Coventry and Sheffield United complete the set. Of those Norwich have come up against, perhaps Swansea were the classiest of them all – had they had someone who could shoot straight on the night they might have done better than lose 2-0 at Carrow Road in August. But none of the others has looked significantly better than Paul Lambert's team.
Maybe the difference will come in January, when clubs have to decide whether to stick or twist.
There's money around the division, but it has to be spent wisely – City fans know only too well from the experience of previous regimes that money can be wasted. Some clubs will throw money at players and hope they get it right; some will be prudent and gamble on the quality. Others haven't got it to waste, end of story.
Those in with a shout of promotion will fancy reinforcing their aspirations; those near the bottom will look for men of steel to get them out of their respective holes. Those in the middle and without much in the pot might just stick – and hope.
The way the Championship table stands at the moment, though, there aren't many teams who can safely put themselves in either top, middle or bottom groups. The table is open wide from third place down.
Norwich, in fifth, are actually closer to Hull City, who are fifth from bottom, than they are to Cardiff.
Leeds, in 12th, are just a win away from Norwich. The biggest gap between teams is the four points that separate QPR in second from Swansea City in third.
There are cigarette paper widths between teams, which suggests that it could be weeks before the Championship table settles down into something we might identify at the end of the season.
Many teams – Norwich included, you fancy – will be praying that injuries and suspensions curse others and not themselves. It's clear Lambert hasn't got an awful lot to play with, in terms of bodies in the dressing room or money in the kitty.
Much of what happens will be down to who manages those two assets best.
It might be a case of if you've got it, flaunt it.