Robin Sainty: Vrancic making a good case for a more permanent role for Canaries
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
It's scarcely more than a year since Mario Vrancic was widely derided as too slow and insufficiently physical to cut it in the Championship and Christoph Zimmermann was written off as a German fourth division defender – yet on Friday night both were absolutely central to City's stunning statement of intent.
Zimmermann was able to balance captaining the side with snuffing out the significant aerial threat of Birmingham's target man Lukas Jutkiewicz, while Vrancic controlled midfield alongside the impressive Tom Trybull with the sort of air of insouciance that we have come to expect from Mo Leitner.
He was always available and linked with his front men just as comfortably as he dropped into deep areas as City killed the game in the second half. His passing quality is a given, but his ability to win key challenges both on the floor and in the air, and the sudden changes of gear that see him drift past opponents as if he's on invisible castors are the things that have made him such a key player.
It will certainly create a headache for Daniel Farke when Leitner returns to fitness as it would appear to be difficult to accommodate both players in his favoured system, but the fact that Vrancic is more than capable of producing a vital goal, as he did against Birmingham, will make him hard to leave out.
One player who can be sure of his place is Emi Buendia, assuming that the damage inflicted by the Birmingham hatchet men isn't too serious. While he was only on the pitch for little more than half an hour and only functioning on two good legs for about five minutes he simply tore the visitors apart, and one wonders how many goals City could have racked up if he and the equally irrepressible Onel Hernandez had spent longer in partnership.
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The electricity on the pitch is clearly now feeding to and from the fans in the stands in a continuous loop. Far too often in recent years Carrow Road's match-day atmosphere has resembled a library when things weren't going well, but now it's more like one of those Gospel churches where you half expect to see John Belushi doing backflips in the aisles of the Barclay.
Huge credit for that should go to two fan groups, Along Come Norwich and Barclay End Norwich, who organised a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the flags that now festoon the lower Barclay and are continuing to develop their plans. Their work so far has been outstanding, and I think that there will be lots more to come.
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As it turned out, last weekend's results could hardly have been better for City but there's still a long way to go. A win today would be huge, and with Marco Stiepermann back to fitness City will have the necessary physicality to deal with what will be another set of robust opponents.
I don't think anyone could have predicted how vital Stiepermann would be to City's system this season, but his recent absence served to underline how much better the team is with him in it. Against Birmingham his work rate and strength in the air took the pressure off Teemu Pukki, who had looked a little jaded without the big German alongside him.
City will also draw encouragement from the way in which Swansea, who play a similar passing game to the Canaries, were able to exploit a rather static Sheffield United defence last week.
It won't be easy, but this team have risen to every challenge put before them so far this season, and all the pressure is now on the Blades, who will find themselves six points adrift of City if they lose.
Will they be aggressive, and risk being overrun or sit back and hope to get something on the counter? Either way it should be a fascinating afternoon.