Six points clear of third place, that’s what I’m looking at right now.
Swansea City’s slightly surprising defeat at the hands of lowly Derby County presented a great opportunity for the Canaries, who would play later on Wednesday evening against Reading, to open up a little gap and grab some breathing space in the breathless first half of the season.
City duly went on to beat Reading and return to the top of the table, three points clear of Bournemouth.
It has literally been three games a week since the first whistle blew back in September and the punishing schedule has taken it’s toll in terms of injuries, at one point threatening to leave City with less than eleven experienced players. At it’s worst Norwich got down to just twelve acknowledged first team players but at last, it looks like it’s beginning to ease.
The unexpectedly early return of Kieran Dowell, Jordan Hugill and Kenny McLean has been a huge shot in the arm for all of us in the Canary Nation and watching the way that Dowell linked up with Todd Cantwell, Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia in that excellent second half at the Madejski Stadium was positively mouth watering.
The great link-up play and intricate passing in tight spaces bodes very well indeed and the half-time introduction of Cantwell and Dowell effectively turned the game in City’s favour.
Dowell is going to be like a brand new signing, which I know he basically is anyway, due to his summer arrival and then getting injured almost immediately. His return to fitness comes with a lot of optimism in the Tuckster household with the author thinking that our search for an effective number 10 could be over.
Marco Stiepermann stepped into James Maddison’s boots in 2018/19 and he was a big part of that promotion side, scoring some very important goals while he was at it. In the Premier League, Daniel Farke knew he wasn’t up to the task at that level and that became obvious enough for Stuart Webber to try to help him out by loaning in Ondrej Duda last January. We all know how that turned out as the team went into a tail spin from January onwards and Duda failed to create the necessary spark that a number 10 should give a team.
Stiepi, who as an aside, has an uncanny resemblance to my brother, has been given the gig as number 10 again while the injury crisis has raged on around him. He’s struggled though, hasn’t he?
The old criticisms of the Premier League, often concerning his lack of heading ability, and general inability to influence a game for any length of time, have resurfaced among the fan base but now that Dowell is fit, I’m expecting he will displace Marco in the starting XI.
That may sound harsh on him, and maybe it’s because of the ballers around him, but that 45 minute cameo at Reading of the front four mentioned above makes me excited for what the rest of the season is going to bring.
Turning to the defence, Ben Gibson and Grant Hanley have been excellent for the most part and it’s great to see what a fit Grant Hanley is like again. His performances in the 2017/18 season have been forgotten by plenty of fans if social media is any judge. He’s always been strong and I used to be surprised when I read comments about his lack of pace. Lack of pace?!
He’s a lot quicker than he looks and while he may not be Ben Godfrey rapid, he’s certainly no slouch, is he? Gibson being left-footed has brought a natural balance to the pairing that helps a lot more than you might think and although Christoph Zimmermann has stepped into his place like he’s never been away, if it was me I would bring Gibbo back in to the side when he’s fit again.
Xavi Quintilla sounds like his mystery, early season fitness issues could be behind him and a new year return looks on the cards. Where that leaves Jacob Sorensen could then become a big question as he has played all his football for his new team in the unfamiliar left-back position. He’s nowhere near disgraced himself though with very few opponents actually getting the better of him and that is testament to his ability.
Lungi is a defensive midfielder by trade, maybe a centre-back if his Danish U21 coach is to be believed, and he’s going to have plenty of competition for that role in the midfield. Oliver Skipp has made the DM role his own as various partners have rotated around him. Lukas Rupp looks to be his best foil but again, Rupp has had his own injury problems of late. We know from experience that if someone is playing well then Farke will continue to play them, so if he can get a chance there then he might well stay in the team but it’s worth remembering that he is still young. The signs are good though.
Norwich have done incredibly well to weather an injury crisis that in my forty odd years of watching City I cannot remember being worse. To be top of the table with so many influential players having been absent is highly creditable and shows the value of having such a large, quality squad, something that I remember plenty of fans questioning last summer.
The victory over Reading felt like a big one to me and at almost the halfway point in the season, things are looking very good for another promotion push. Stuart Webber has said that he thinks the club would be better placed to try to stay up if/when City are promoted again but that is a question for another day. At the moment, Norwich are playing football in the Championship better than anybody and despite their injury struggles they’ve still found a way to win and long may that continue.