David Freezer: Statement win at Blackburn needed to keep the Norwich City promotion train on track
However unexpected it may be, Norwich City are in prime promotion position as the halfway point of the season approaches today - but a statement result at Blackburn would really get yellow hearts racing.
Daniel Farke’s team have accumulated an impressive 44 points to ensure they will be sitting in the top two on Christmas Day, a first half of the season most supporters could only dream of.
In fact, victory at Ewood Park this afternoon could well seal Christmas number one for the Canaries, given the one-point gap to current leaders Leeds ahead of their tough trip to in-form Aston Villa tomorrow afternoon.
As with every week, though, we find ourselves repeating that there are no easy games in the Championship. Mid-table Bristol City proved that once again by giving Norwich a real run for their money at Ashton Gate last weekend.
Blackburn sit a point better off than the Robins, with the momentum of League One promotion still at their backs and a manager in Tony Mowbray who knows how to engineer promotion to the top flight.
Rovers have lost just one of their 22 home league games in 2018, so in spite of City’s first 10-game unbeaten run in six years, any expectation of being favourites this afternoon can be quickly ruled out.
Yes, half of those 22 matches were in the third tier and, yes, six of their 11 home Championship games have been draws, but this Mowbray team clearly won’t be beaten easily on their own turf.
Sheffield United may have won 2-0 at Ewood Park in October but Leeds were also beaten 2-1 in Lancashire a few weeks later.
It will be a difficult game – but it’s exactly the sort of match that teams good enough for automatic promotion will go and win, to lay down a marker, make a statement and show what they’re capable of.
With two tough home games to follow against Forest and Derby, it kicks off an intense period of four games in just 11 days, five in 15 if you count the FA Cup tie against Portsmouth.
Seven points from those four league games is likely to be enough to keep the Canaries in the automatic promotion places as we head into 2019, but they are already ahead of the curve.
In the last 10 seasons in the Championship the gap from second to third place has been an average of just under three points. The most was eight points as Newcastle and Brighton sat well clear in 2016 but in four of those campaigns the gap was just a point.
So for Norwich to be five clear of West Brom at this stage certainly bodes well, even if we’re all well aware of the strength of the chasing pack if form were to tail off.
Beyond that, the 44 points that Farke’s team have already amassed would have been enough to be in the top two in seven of the last 10 campaigns – and enough for top spot in five of them.
Inevitably, a defeat will have to arrive at some point. Taking 40 points from the last 51 available is incredible by anyone’s standards.
So to be able to make a long trip unbeaten in 10 overall, without defeat in nine away league games and well on track for promotion, it almost feels like City have done so well that supporters would be able to stomach a loss without too much stress.
That’s not only an amazing situation to be in, but may just be the key to alleviating any pressure which might threaten the superb festive position.
Get another win today, though, and you can guarantee Forest and Derby will be dreading their trips to Carrow Road, let alone struggling Brentford before they host the Canaries at Griffin Park on New Year’s Day.
For me the key to grabbing that statement victory in Lancashire this afternoon, stating clearly that this team are ready to keep proving the doubters wrong, is the return of Moritz Leitner.
City have managed to keep things bubbling up nicely but since the 4-1 win at Swansea there hasn’t quite been the same energy and class to their play.
Mario Vrancic has covered well enough but Leitner was proving to be one of the best in the division before his calf injury and I prefer Vrancic further forward.
While Ben Godfrey has done a decent job in Timm Klose’s absence, I’d also get Grant Hanley back in now, after shaking off any remaining rust with the U23s on Monday. If that duo are back, and Onel Hernandez can continue where he left off as an impact substitute in Bristol, then good luck, Blackburn!
It may be a hectic Christmas spell approaching but the injuries this City squad have dealt with mean there is plenty of energy to keep this promotion push on track.
News from Germany
Disappointing news for the click-bait websites on Wednesday night.
Fresh from not letting the facts get in the way of a story and suggesting that Daniel Farke was being considered for the Bayer Leverkusen job, there was a spanner in the works – a 2-1 win at Schalke.
Rheinische Post, a regional daily newspaper in Germany, had included City’s boss in their list of candidates with Heiko Herrlich under pressure with Bayer in mid-table ahead of the winter break.
The fact that their online report was also angled on former Borussia Dortmund boss Peter Bosz being the lead candidate, should a change be made, did not stop the usual suspects from suggesting Farke was heading home.
As long as his City contract situation runs, he will be an easy target for speculation.
Frankly, even if he signs a new deal then Bundesliga interest could remain an issue. However, Leverkusen sit 10th and four points of the European places. So perhaps it’s worth at least waiting for the vacancy to exist first...
You can’t beat a good slice of football at Christmas.
One of my favourite festive memories is from the unforgettable Boxing Day of 2003, when Darren Huckerby was unwrapped as the present every Canaries fan wanted 15 years ago.
I’d been fortunate to enjoy that day in the posh seats, as the company my dad worked for at the time were sponsoring that Nottingham Forest clash, so we were accompanied by Canaries legend Bryan Gunn.
We bumped into Delia Smith arriving at the stadium as we were being given a tour and, after a nudge from dad, I had to ask ‘is Hucks coming back?’ – showing a bit of early journalistic nous, perhaps.
The smile in return and a ‘watch this space’ with a wink set our party up for a great day, as Delia hurried off to go and greet the returning hero.
The atmosphere before, during and after that 1-0 win over Forest, thanks to a Mathias Svensson goal, was simply superb. Let’s hope for more of the same this year...
Happy Christmas, everyone!