David Freezer: City will need to dig deep at Bolton as gruelling race picks up pace
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
How soon the perspective can change on a promotion push, putting the pressure on Norwich City before they take on lowly Bolton this afternoon.
Who would have thought we'd be thinking along those lines at the start of this week, on the back of emphatic wins over Ipswich and Leeds, leaving City sitting pretty and five points clear of third place. All of a sudden the Premier League could just about be seen at the end of the tunnel, a clear route opening up as a run of more favourable fixtures awaited.
Things rarely go as expected in the Championship though – and it's even more unlikely for things to go smoothly for Norwich City.
Instead the competitive nature of a division without a standout team, with plenty of strength and quality throughout, ensured the Canaries were brought straight back down to earth.
Daniel Farke warned that these two away games in the north-west would be very different, after the emotional efforts that went in to rescuing a point at West Brom, being held to a home draw by Sheffield United, upsetting Leeds in their own back yard and ensuring derby dominance continued over Ipswich.
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There was always the threat of an 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' vibe leaving the Norwich players needing to dig in and amid the gentle atmosphere of a half-empty Deepdale, with little animosity in a crowd of just over 11,000, the promotion picture changed again.
Preston were in good form and deservedly beat City 3-1, but only thanks to an inspired display from Canaries academy product Declan Rudd resisting a fightback.
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With Leeds and Sheffield United both winning, it was back to second place and two points ahead of the Blades with 14 games to go for Norwich – reminding us all that there are plenty of twists and turns yet to come as the business end of the season hurtles closer.
It was however just a sixth league defeat of a fine campaign so far and, even more remarkably, just a second away loss in the Championship, bringing an end to a club record unbeaten run of 13 away league games. So while it was a disappointing night, with under-par performances and a ridiculous fifth wasted penalty, stomaching defeat to a Preston team who had sealed a fourth win in five games wasn't too painful.
Frustrating, of course, but far from disastrous.
It leaves Farke's promotion hopefuls needing to bounce back, with the added boost of knowing they will reclaim top spot with victory at Bolton, as Leeds are not in action this weekend.
There's a secret weapon that's been deployed by sporting director Stuart Webber though: Nelson Oliveira. We all know he's got top level ability, as demonstrated by his fine winner for the Royals against Blackburn in midweek. How his parent club could do with him continuing to find his form at Bramall Lane...
How sturdy has City's level of 'bouncebackability' proved on those rare occasions of needing to shake off a defeat though?
The wobbly start to the season saw the chaotic 4-3 defeat to West Brom followed by a 2-1 loss at Sheffield United, when Billy Sharp snatched the points in injury-time – the only consecutive defeats of the season.
That loss was recovered from by a 2-0 win over Preston at Carrow Road, before the disappointing opening month got worse with that 3-0 home loss to Leeds.
So not a great start, in terms of bouncing back, but that defeat to Leeds proved a turning point and we've seen a very different Canaries team ever since.
The next defeat didn't arrive until early October, when an unfortunate Timm Klose own goal allowed Stoke to hold out for a 1-0 win in Norfolk, followed by an international break.
Despite losing Teemu Pukki to injury during that break, a 2-1 win at Forest featuring two Klose headers was the perfect antidote, kick-starting the current run of just two defeats in 20 matches.
The next was in late December, in the floodlight-affected 4-3 loss to Derby, which was remedied by the Canaries digging deep to score a late equaliser at Brentford on New Year's Day despite injuries biting in a gruelling period.
Serious character and fight were on display to bounce back on both occasions, on top of the quality in Farke's squad, and there's no doubt that will be needed again today against a Bolton team battling for survival.
Even if Klose and Mo Leitner are fit enough to return, it's unlikely we'll see City playing to their full potential, as they take on a third game in six days.
If ever one of those classic 1-0 gritty wins was needed, that successful sides are usually credited with being so good at grinding out, it's today. It's time to dig deep to keep this promotion push on track.
• JEEPERS KEEPERS
As much as it was damaging to City, I couldn't help but feel pleased for Declan Rudd in midweek.
After so many years as a nearly man for Norwich, it's good to see a local lad performing well in the Championship.
We had the perfect view of Teemu Pukki's shot in the first half, after a lovely Emi Buendia pass when it was still 1-0, and that shot was definitely heading for the bottom corner if Rudd had not stuck his boot out in time.
The penalty save, obviously, as well as the denials of Pukki and Ben Godfrey were absolutely crucial in the second half. He's got almost 200 EFL appearances to his name now, for Charlton, Preston and City – including the win at Old Trafford in December 2015.
At 28 years old he's still a good age for a keeper and a number one at a Championship club. Today it's Remi Matthews' turn for a reunion and he's sure to be desperate to prove to Farke and Webber that they were wrong to let him go last year.
• NORTHERN ROMANCE
We've stayed up north since the Preston game, setting up one of the least romantic Valentine's Day evenings I've ever experienced.
Alongside City corresponding colleagues Paddy and Michael, we got ourselves set up in a nice enough Air BnB for a few nights, which gave us everything we needed to continue working on Thursday and Friday, rather than spending another 10 hours in a car, ahead of today's game at Bolton.
It was less Men Behaving Badly and more Alan Partridge in a Linton Travel Tavern as we fended for ourselves, making sure we made our apologies to our better halves for being away on February 14.
But we decided to have a bit of fun with it for a Pink Un Show on Thursday, complete with rose petals and heart-shaped glasses. It doesn't get any more romantic!
Nor did the dash to Currys so we could get an HDMI lead to watch the Europa League games after it...
It's well worth a watch, hopefully, and can be watched above or by clicking here.