Robin Sainty: City dig deep in the mud to come up with a win
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Some wins are bigger than others, and Norwich City’s second successful trip to the mudflats of St Andrews within a week must have sent a shiver down the spines of the chasing pack.
We are now entering the phase of the season where the finishing line is just starting to hove into view on the distant horizon and games become just that little bit more important leading to more and more unexpected results.
With Brentford falling to a third straight loss on the same pitch on Saturday and Swansea’s previously impregnable defence conceding four goals at lowly Huddersfield on the same day, the stage was set for City to slip up on Tuesday night.
To be honest, the first half did little to calm any concerns amongst City fans, with Birmingham largely the better side and City missing a penalty which could have put them two up before Tim Krul and Christoph Zimmermann conspired to gift an equaliser to the home team.
However, the second half, in which City noticeably made much greater use of the diagonal ball, was a masterclass in game management as they showed great patience to wear Birmingham down while snuffing out any attacking threat that the Blues were able to generate, all of it on a surface more suitable for growing King Edwards than playing one-touch football.
Despite the penalty miss, Teemu Pukki is back to his absolute best at just the right time and Daniel Farke will have been delighted to see three of his substitutes, Onel Hernandez, Jordan Hugill and Lukas Rupp, playing key roles in the second and third goals.
I’ve said it before, but fatigue is going to be a big factor in the run-in and the depth of City’s squad is greater than most of their rivals, so having players ready and waiting to contribute is vitally important.
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What’s even more crucial is the team spirit that's on display. For example, Lukas Rupp could have been forgiven for attempting to cap his 80-yard run with his first goal for City, but saw Oliver Skipp in a better position and put the team first.
Skipp is clearly a hugely popular member of the squad, and it was lovely to see Emi Buendia run halfway across the pitch after the final whistle to jump into his arms. This is a group where personal achievement is secondary to team goals and they all clearly enjoy each other's successes.
It would be easy for a cynic to look at City’s recent run of games against struggling sides and say that wins should have been expected, but that would be to ignore the essence of Championship football where anyone can beat anyone else on a given day.
Take Rotherham last Saturday; they came to disrupt City in any way possible, aided and abetted by a bizarre refereeing display by Tony Harrington that threatened to see Buendia, in particular, kicked out of the game as heavy challenges were repeatedly left unpunished yet offered Rotherham the softest of free-kicks when Pukki appeared to be through on goal late on.
While City’s poor finishing made it harder for themselves, credit has to go to the visitors for battling until the end, and nearly snatching a point when Max Aarons had to produce a key block to deny Ben Crooks.
There are simply no easy games in this league, and Sunday's will be no exception, so it’s good to see Farke so calm, and quite prepared to call out the lack of intensity in the first half at Birmingham rather than simply focussing on the improved performance after the break.
Compare that coolness with Thomas Frank at Brentford who has twice been embroiled in angry words with opposing managers after disappointing results this season and looks like a man who struggles to control his emotions. I know which sort of personality I’d want to have in charge.