A tense and nervy one awaits as Rafa’s Toon enter the Fine City with three priceless ones at stakeFri 1 Apr 16 by Gary Gowers
As someone who writes a bit, mainly about football, the terms ’six-pointer’ and ‘must win’ trip off the keyboard easier than a boundary off the bat of Jason Roy, but more often than not they’re neither. Not technically.
As a fan, I shy away from both clichés, in that to regard a game of football that involves Norwich City as either merely ramps up the pressure to win to an almost intolerable level. For those that have played the game, you’ll know how hard it is when you have to win a game, regardless of the opposition.
But, while colleague Stewart Lewis offered a spirited and reasoned defence of tomorrow not being must-win(and of course it isn’t mathematically so), the clash with Newcastle comes perilously close, especially if we have any hope of heading to Goodison on the final day minus the need for a win.
And reluctantly I have to admit it is the very epitome of a six-pointer.
A quick, sheepish glance at the league table, while infinitely better than it looked a fortnight ago, is still still sufficient to make the buttocks tighten. And it tells us that a Toon win on Saturday would bring them level with City on points but still with that bloody game in hand.
It also tells us that with Sunderland entertaining the Baggies of West Brom, the Black Cats will be looking to emerge from the weekend outside the bottom three. While a meeting of Big Sam v Pulis is unlikely to be a total football tribute to Johan Cruyff, it does offer the Wearsiders a presentable chance of three points.
We have to assume they will win. And, for their part, they’ll be hoping – in the same way that City ‘won’ the Tyne-Wear derby – for the Canaries and Rafa’s new charges to cancel each other out at Carrow Road.
All of which means diddly-squat to Alex Neil who, finally having stumbled across a formula that has eked out four points from the last two games, will be hoping and planning for more of the same from his revitalised squad.
Assuming that those who have been travelling to the four corners of Europe return unscathed – and all will be revealed at this morning’s presser – it seems fair to assume that the spine of the side that succeeded at the Hawthorns will be offered another chance to grind out three points.
Across the back four, fitness permitting, fans’ favourite Timm Klose appears a shoo-in at centre-back and it looks likely that Russell Martin and Martin Olsson – Sweden’s official man of the match in their midweek draw with the Czech Republic – will join him.
The only decision for Neil appears to be who to slot in alongside Klose, although with possession being nine-tenths of the law and after having excelled at West Brom the smart money will be on Seb Bassong getting the nod.
Despite their horses-for-courses penchant it appears inconceivable that Team Neil will upset the O’Neil/Howson central midfield partnership, partly because the current alternatives appear not overly appetizing but more so because both have hit a rich vein of form at a very opportune moment.
A Toon midfield that now includes the energetic and dominant figure of Jonjo Shelvey – against whom the City midfield have already done a job at Carrow Road this season – will ask questions of their City counterparts, (especially with a fortnight of Rafa organisation in the tank) and will require O’Neil and Howson to be clever and efficient in possession, and disciplined and smart when without the ball.
Another newish Toon recruit, Andros Townsend (once an Ipswich loanee folks) will offer a very different threat and will likely press Olsson into being a full-back who has only limited opportunities to join in in the attacking third. As such Robbie Brady – with his ‘wide man who can defend’ hat on – will be a ideal ally to Olsson in quelling the threat of the former England man.
From there Neil and co have a choice to make. Do they stick with Matt Jarvis wide on the right? He was only a limited success at the Hawthorns, and he’s never been as successful on the right as he has been on the left, but he did offer a nice balance to the side while also offering some reliable protection to Martin at right-back.
A slightly more defensive option would be to plonk Ivo Pinto in front of Russ, although with the Portuguese U-21 international clearly happier when heading in a forward direction it’s one that arguably has legs. Steven Naismith is another in with a shout albeit wide-right is far from his natural habitat.
Vadis Odjidja Ofoe also offers a powerful and direct alternative.
Given that Newcastle have a reported headache over who pick at left back with an apparent dearth of options, who plays wide right for City could end up being critical to the outcome.
And then the big one: what to do with Wes.
At the Hawthorns he made it no further than the bench as the stripes were handed to Dieumerci Mbokani and Patrick Bamford; Alex sensibly deciding that in the hurly, burly, six foot plus world of Tony Pulis there was no room for artistry.
One suspects the need for creation will tip the balance in favour of including our favourite diminutive Irishman. He’s certainly one that Rafa will expect to see in the City starting XI and whose absence would provide a fillip to the Toon.
And then of course, who to play up top. Mbokani, who was thankfully spared the true horrors of Zaventem Airport, will be keen to replicate his robust second-half showing at West Brom, while Patrick Bamford, having now been given a sniff of City first-team action, will also be champing at the bit for a start.
Cameron Jerome has been a go-to guy for Alex throughout the season but over the last few games his profligacy in front of goal has cost him a starting place. White it’s never wise to second-guess a Team Neil team selection, everything points to another afternoon that will begin in a seated position.
What we do know however is that Alex won’t repeat the mistakes of St James’ Park where, in attempting to ‘go for it’ by replacing the defensive shield of Alex Tettey with attacking options, we offered Newcastle space in which to attack that was beyond their wildest dreams.
That won’t happen again.
Instead a perfect balance has to be struck; one that will offer defensive solidity while offering an attacking threat well above and beyond that in evidence at the Hawthorns.
And finally there’s us… and the part were can play.
Tomorrow’s is no time for Carrow Road to be echoing to the strains of Neil, Benitez and the players. Instead it needs to be highly charged and intense and echoing to the tunes of the Yellow Army; ideally something akin to play-off semi-final levels.
If we can just do our bit and trust Alex’s men to carry out the plan that has been carefully honed over the last fortnight then maybe, just maybe, we can edge ourselves a tiny bit closer to safety.
“Never mind the danger…”
And some news from MFW’s own Mick Dennis…