Strength in depth likely to be the key
Paddy DavittNorwich, Leeds, Charlton. What City supporters would give for the season to grind to a shuddering halt right now. Paul Lambert's squad have performed above and beyond the call of duty.Paddy Davitt
Norwich, Leeds, Charlton.
What City supporters would give for the season to grind to a shuddering halt right now. Paul Lambert's squad have performed above and beyond the call of duty. Winning runs, clean sheets and goals have flowed in equal measure. But Grant Holt's suspension following his Brentford rush of blood underlines how precarious a promotion tightrope City tread.
The 1,400 in attendance at Walsall's Banks's Stadium on Tuesday night would testify just what a tough act it is deputising for the club's top scorer, leader and cult hero.
Chris Martin and Oli Johnson battled manfully but City never really carried that potent attacking threat or physical presence Holt guarantees.
Cody McDonald snaffled a match winner after Lambert's inspired double substitution but for long spells Norwich laboured. No wonder, on a gluepot of a playing surface and a gruelling ten man effort against the Bees just days earlier.
It was an against-all-odds victory. At no small cost as Adam Drury departed early clutching his left knee. One hopes the dependable left back's first half exit is precautionary. Simon Lappin was re-deployed, Stephen Hughes entered the fray in midfield. City coped. Manfully. But this season is fast turning into a survival of the fittest.
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Injuries and suspensions amongst the title rivals can surely only increase as winter turns to spring. Each game exponentially more important than the one before. One step closer to the finish line. One less opportunity to claw back points. Or stretch a lead in Norwich's case.
Leeds already have two league games to make up on the Canaries. One on Charlton. Further progress in the FA Cup and Johnstone's Paint is exacerbating a potential problem. Pure coincidence United's current league blip comes in the midst of double-pronged cup progress? You think not.
Norwich and Charlton have no such distractions. Yet Lambert's resources are still being tested to the limit. With less than a week left of the transfer window the Scot's net activity this month has left his squad one light. Jon Otsemobor and Dario Dumic move onto pastures new. Owain Tudur Jones departs for a month long spell at Yeovil. Johnson and Zak Whitbread come in through the front door. Russell Martin and Anthony McNamee get their own keys after an extended look around the place before Christmas.
Chief executive David McNally hinted earlier this week Lambert could make one final foray ahead of the deadline. The Canaries' chief was yesterday linked with Stockport left back Michael Rose should Drury be sidelined for any length of time. But Jamie Cureton is heavily touted with a Carrow Road exit so it's unlikely any potential new boy will struggle to find another peg at Colney.
Lambert knows the score. Success or failure hinges on working with the resources at his disposal. In the Scot's own footballing utopia, City would have multiple options for every position on the park. In the real world, versatility could become the new buzz word over the run-in.
But Lambert is not alone. Leeds and Charlton may have the same cache as the Canaries in English football's third tier but all three are dealing with the financial realities of past misdemeanours.
None of the rivals for automatic promotion can afford to carry bloated squads. The trio's success so far this campaign has been built on a settled core. Continuity breeds results. Until Holt's Brentford red card, Norwich's starting line up picked itself. Ditto before Jens Berthel Askou's broken foot. But in between those two events Michael Nelson re-established himself at the heart of a City backline minus the Dane.
Therein could lie the answer. Which of the title rivals' shadow squads produce when duty calls. City coped without Holt at Walsall. Could Leeds do the same without Beckford? Could Charlton without experienced top scorer Deon Burton?