Norwich City take another step on the long march

Gary Hooper slams home Norwich City's second in a 4-1 Championship win at Millwall. Picture by Paul

Gary Hooper slams home Norwich City's second in a 4-1 Championship win at Millwall. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Norwich City intruded on Millwall's private grief just long enough to underline their Championship promotion credentials.

At times this was an uncomfortable exercise in professionalism from the Canaries at The Den, as the bile poured down from the terraces in the direction of Ian Holloway.

The Lions' chief produced a remarkable post-match defence of his record and desire to fight on against forces which increasingly appear poised to suck his club into League One.

Sadly, his collection of old stagers and raw youngsters could only sustain parity until the point Jonny Howson veered away from both Shaun Williams and Nicky Bailey in central midfield to rifle Norwich in front with a goal of the highest quality.

Howson has produced so often in similar situations there is an inherent danger you take his brand of midfield craftsmanship for granted. This was another top-drawer offering to set aside the slaloming run and finish that helped sink Manchester City on their own patch and effectively sealed Premier League survival with a rasping finish against West Brom in the same productive week some two seasons ago now.

City never looked back once Howson helped quell the stirrings of a growing belief within the Millwall ranks they could perhaps emulate Wigan's achievement in nullifying Norwich at Carrow Road just a few days earlier.

In both instances City were labouring to assert their undoubted superiority against two clubs many rungs below them in the ladder.

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Alex Neil made it clear in the aftermath of that Latics' defeat the Canaries had fallen a long way short of the intensity and the work ethic he demands. But that was far removed from his Brentford lambasting; it was perhaps a recognition of the Herculean efforts the squad had delivered previously to catapult the club into a Championship title race that has all the ingredients of being one of the most memorable ever.

City managed to replenish their energy levels in the hours that followed the Wigan setback and once the breakthrough came their greater quality illustrated the chasm between two clubs who appear to be orbiting vastly different planets.

Howson was not alone in stamping his mark on the midfield skirmishes. Neil deployed Wes Hoolahan and Graham Dorrans, nominally in wider channels, but Hoolahan's shimmy and unerringly accurate finish past his Republic of Ireland team-mate David Forde came on the opposite flank, while Dorrans' long-range tester parried by Forde that ultimately led to City's penalty, came from a burst through the centre.

The speed of assimilation Neil has engineered continues to impress. This is his side now playing to his songsheet; one that favours a midfield populated by intelligent technicians who seek out space and possess the vision to execute at a level most in the second tier fail to attain. Maybe only Bournemouth deserve to be bracketed in the same grade in terms of their ability to clinically manipulate areas on the pitch through a controlled weight of possession.

Neil knows the value of midfield dominance, but Wigan was a reminder that despite such creativity, City must earn the right through their toil and endeavour. That is the natural terrain of Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey but City's collective pressing and quest for turnovers deep in enemy territory again turned a potentially difficult assignment at The Den into a routine stroll.

Norwich's undoubted squad depth has become a stick to beat them with the longer this gruelling season has ebbed and flowed. Neil alluded to it after the derby when Mick McCarthy continued a common theme; the sense that Norwich should be looking down on the rest simply because they exited the Premier League with a healthy balance sheet and a commitment to retain a core group of players the equal of their peers.

There was a rare trace of irritation from the Scot in his public soundbites but the response was classic Neil; insisting both him and his players would do their best not to disappoint those who have placed that garland around their neck.

Neil himself underlined the point at Millwall in highlighting the absence of Seb Bassong, Tettey and Lewis Grabban which forced him to overhaul a spine on which all successful sides are built.

Millwall, by some measure, are one of the poorest teams in the division, but that should not detract from the manner of Norwich's win. Fresh questions had been asked in the wake of the Latics' defeat but they were emphatically answered. That urge to respond and prove themselves all over again is an invaluable commodity at this stage.

As much as it remains a battle against promotion rivals it also revolves around that internal struggle. Millwall proved once again if Norwich match the fire and athleticism they face from opponents perhaps less well endowed with the sheer quality illustrated by Howson's virtuoso strike, then they look an unstoppable force. This was another box ticked.

The tension and the pressure will only spiral from here, but Neil and his men appear ready to deliver.

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