City boss Paul Lambert this morning pondered the possibility of a swift return to action for centre-half Zak Whitbread as the Canaries geared up for Sunday’s visit of Premier League giants Manchester United.
The Scot – about to pit his managerial wits against the greatest of them all in the shape of Sir Alex Ferguson – has a whole clutch of big decisions to make after resting four of his more prominent stars for last weekend’s FA Cup defeat by Leicester City.
Skipper Grant Holt, defender Kyle Naugton, keeper John Ruddy and midfielder Andrew Surman all missed the 2-1 FA Cup fifth round defeat; all four must be close to the manager’s thinking.
As, indeed, will be the 28-year-old Texan who was hitting some of the best form of his Canary playing life before injury struck in the big, home win over Bolton Wanderers.
And while his partner that day – the Spaniard Daniel Ayala – is still some weeks off a return, Whitbread is clearly coming back into contention. With Elliott Ward fit again and playing well and Posh new-boy Ryan Bennett due in Norfolk towards the end of next week following his latest England Under-21 outing, Lambert has an abundance of defensive riches at his disposal as Norwich seek to throw a spanner into United’s title works.
“Daniel [Ayala] is definitely out of it; Zak’s got a chance,” Lambert reported from Colney this morning.
“I’ll just see how he [Whitbread] is and then I’ll judge it later on,” added the Canary boss, as the Norfolk side gun for those final, five-or-so points that would take them over the survival finishing line.
Lambert suggested that there were one or two more bumps and bruises to factor into his thinking; James Vaughan wasn’t wholly fit enough to start a game – yet. Likewise Jonny Howson may need next week’s reserve game against Wolves under his belt before the former Leeds skipper can make his first appearance for his new employers.
Marc Tierney is also still short of making a return with his aggravated groin trouble. In the meantime, veteran defender Adam Drury has been proving his continuing worth at left-back. But with both Scotland’s Russell Martin and Naughton at his disposal for the full-back gigs, Drury could yet be back on the bench come Sunday lunchtime.
So much for the defence; the possible permutations in the front half of the team are just as endless; it would be a big surprise if skipper Holt wasn’t thrown back into the Premier League fray after being rested for the Foxes FA Cup clash.
The United game is, of course, something else again. The may have suffered a rare home defeat to Ajax in the Europa Cup last night, but it would be a brave soul who betted against the Old Trafford giants ending this season pot-less.
“It’s just fantastic for this football club that a team of that stature is coming here in the first place for a competitive game,” said Lambert, as one of Glasgow’s managerial apprentices looked up in awe at one of its greatest ever managerial masters.
Now some 25 years in to his reign at United, Sir Alex appears to have lost none of the passion and determination that has marked out his stellar career.
“They are still one of the best teams in Europe, let alone Britain, and still have a great chance to win the Premier League. They’re just a fantastic team – and have been for many a-year now. I’m under no illusions as to how hard it’s going to be.
“But it’s not a game that we’re going to be frightened by. It’s a game that we will go and try and win,” he added. “We’ll give it a go.”
And the manager?
“Sir Alex has been at the helm for 25 years; brought the club up to the way that it is today,” said Lambert.
“And in that time they have had some incredible players go through the club – and there’s been some incredible teams. And, of course, they’ve won the biggest club competition a couple of times. So they know how to win.”