Former Rangers hero Steven Whittaker will continue to deputise for the injured Russell Martin this weekend as the Canaries prepare to play host to Premier League leaders Manchester United.
Injured in that pre-season friendly clash with Glasgow neighbours Celtic, Whittaker found himself sidelined for 13 weeks with a nasty ankle knock.
He has, however, demonstrated a fine sense of timing on his return to active duty – not least in the simple fact that he has stepped up to the plate in the very month that Martin has found himself on the treatment table with the back injury sustained in the away draw at Aston Villa.
Any hope that Hughton might have had of Whittaker taking it easy ahead of the tea-time clash with United were, however, dashed by stand-in Scotland boss who played the versatile defender for the full 90 minutes of yesterday’s 2-1 win over minnows Luxembourg.
The 28-year-old will have rather more to contend with this weekend than Luxembourg’s international part-timers as the Canaries look to throw an unexpected spanner into United’s title works.
Last season they came close with Ryan Giggs’ injury-time winner stealing all the headlines. It will, however, require a similarly monumental effort from Hughton’s troops to rock Sir Alex’s apple cart.
Paul Lambert’s Villa came close last weekend – or at least for the first hour of the contest – before one substitution turned the contest on its head. City also know all they need to know about Robin van Persie from his trip to Norfolk last season when in Arsenal colours.
The list, in fairness, goes on and on.
Time for Norwich to look to their own game, first and foremost and place their faith in an increasingly-settled looking side that has delivered eight Premier League points from the last available 12 – more than enough to haul themselves out of the bottom three and leave Reading, QPR and Southampton to ponder their fate.
“Russell Martin, who missed the last couple of games is still not available, but apart from that we’re OK,” Hughton confirmed today, as all eyes started to turn towards the tea-time clash with the Manchester giants.
The Canary chief was also in a position to breathe a sigh of relief that neither Whittaker nor Wes Hoolahan – finally handed 45 minutes of international action by Giovanni Trappatoni – came away with anything untoward. John Ruddy left Joe Hart to deal – or not – with Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic in England’s 4-2 midweek defeat.
“The three lads that were away on international duty – John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker, and Wes Hoolahan are all fine,” added the City chief, hopeful that full-back Martin was not too far away from a return.
“We thought Russ was going to be okay for the last game, but it’s one that has dragged on a little bit. We’re expecting him to train on Monday and Tuesday and continue to progress.”
Few would be expecting miracles off Norwich this weekend – though both Manchester City and Chelsea might. One, small slip-up can cost teams at the very top so dear.
But as Villa discovered last weekend, the sheer quality that Ferguson can call on off the bench can change games in an instant.
The fact that Norwich are not locked in the bottom three takes a little of the pressure off both manager and players. Anything will be deemed a bonus this weekend. United are unlikely to be as mentally fragile as Arsenal – even if they have come a-cropper at Carrow Road before.
“It gives us a little bit of comfort that we’re not in the bottom three,” said Hughton. “But although we’re picking up points and playing well, we have some very tough games coming up where – unless you’re on top of your game – it can be difficult.
“But we’re delighted that we’ve kept away from that bottom three and it’s our responsibility to continue to do that.”