City boss Paul Lambert will – in every likelihood – be breathing a quiet sigh of relief after star defender Zak Whitbread pulled out of two international friendlies with the USA due to a back injury sustained in the 1-1 draw with Hull City.
In what has proved a bitter-sweet 72 hours for the Texan, Whitbread grabbed his first goal in Canary colours at the KC with a powerful header from a 27th minute David Fox free-kick.
But it came at a price – a tweak to his back that will now see the 27-year-old miss out on the games against Argentina (March 26) and Paraguay (March 29).
It was his first call-up to the senior US squad, but given the amount of travelling involved – let alone the prospect of two games and training in between, so discretion was the order of the day and Whitbread will now spend the international fortnight back at Colney resting up his troubled back before resuming the promotion fight with that home clash with struggling Scunthorpe United on April 2.
Much, no doubt, to Lambert’s immense relief.
With Leon Barnett still out with a hamstring injury and Michael Nelson long ago left for the Iron, he has just the on-loan Rob Edwards for cover at centre-half.
With eight ‘cup finals’ now lying between him and the prospect of back-to-back promotions to add to his glittering playing career, the Canary chief will want all hands on deck for the final run-in.
The sight of the big Texan gently being massaged back to full fitness in the Colney treatment room will at least allow Lambert to sleep slightly easier at night.
Speaking straight after the Hull game, Lambert admitted that he was desperately hoping that all those disappearing on international duty this week returned in one piece.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” he told BBC Radio Norfolk. It wasn’t too long ago, of course, when international breaks would come and go without a single City player leaving Norfolk.
Now, however, the Class of 2011-12 are starting to make their mark both domestically and internationally.
Andrew Crofts would be the case in point as the City midfield star eyes a potential outing against England at The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, next Saturday.
The latest news from Gary Speed’s Welsh camp will come as another welcome boost for the Canary chief.
Speed is expected to open his managerial career with an attacking 4-3-3 formation that will find Aaron Ramsey adding the creation to the legs of Joe Ledley and Andy King.
Crofts, therefore, might have to settle for a place on the bench as his international career starts to blossom again after proving one of the big hits of the nPower Championship this season.
He, certainly, is no League One player – a tag that has clearly started to grate with Lambert.
“I hear that stuff that we haven’t got any big name players, but I tell you what they are starting to make names for themselves,” said the former Scottish international midfielder.
“And – for me – they are big names. And so they have earned the right to shrug off that tag of being ‘Only League One players…’ or whatever the accusation may be.
“They are proper professional footballers and I tell you, there’s not many I would swap with them.”
Meanwhile Tigers boss Nigel Pearson was admitting to his disappointment at being unable to stop the Canary bandwagon as the Norfolk side continued to hold on to that second automatic promotion slot ahead of Swansea City.
The fact that Hull were unable to prise three points off their visitors makes their involvement in the play-offs that less likely.
In fairness, other results helped their cause. Nottingham Forest can’t buy a result of late and the Tigers are still just four points off that sixth and final play-off spot.
“Disappointed, really,” said Pearson afterwards.
“For a free-scoring side like they are, we limited them to no chances, really.
“Tactically, I thought we really did limit them, but to concede a goal in the fashion that we did was disappointing,” said Pearson, with his keeper not top of his popularity poll.
He came an awful long way to try and connect with Fox’s penalty-spot free-kick only to find Whitbread powering an excellent header beyond him and on into an empty net.
“Brad [Guzon] knows that having made the decision to come it was going to be difficult to get there.
“And I don’t like to criticise individuals, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to have an [opinion].”
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