The hyperbole around tomorrow’s game has built and built as the week’s progressed to the point where it’s now difficult to envisage it as just a football match.
But it is.
No-one is going to die as a result of what happens tomorrow. It’s not war. And even defeat (for either team) is not the end of the road – not quite yet. Yet, in footballing terms it is one that could indisputably shape the short-term, even medium-term, future of either club.
In any given Premier League season survival is key to the well-being of its incumbents.
Despite the much-discussed/despised/vaunted parachute payments, the hole left by relegation from top to second tier is massive. (So massive in fact that Aston Villa, just for example, are already planning a “headcount reduction”; better known to you and I as a round of compulsory redundancies.)
But next season, by virtue of a TV deal for which BT Sport and Sky have given it more than a touch of the Sheikh Mansours, the prize just for being labelled a Premier League club will soar into the stratosphere.
Not so much pots of gold, more Tutankhamun’s tomb with added encrusted diamonds, a generous sprinkling of rhodium, all topped off with a few layers of platinum.
All of which has cranked up the pressure to win tomorrow to almost intolerable levels.
* Note to self: Remember, it’s just a game *
Luckily for everyone, Robbie Brady is likely to pip me for the left side of midfield berth tomorrow, given that my legs turn to jelly just thinking about it, and thankfully those entrusted with the responsibility by Alex will be rather better equipped than me to deal with the occasion.
Because, crap jokes aside, tomorrow will boil down to which side can handle the white heat that will pervade Carrow Road. The atmosphere will crackle – and not just because of the clappers – yet it will be the side that can collectively think clearly and decisively amidst the maelstrom that will have the edge.
As a wise man once said: dead-eyed, not wide-eyed will win the day.
If the great and the good of footballing punditry are to be believed, the Allardyce and Defoe factors are likely to decide the issue – not only tomorrow but for the run-in as a whole – yet while both have admirable CVs neither will count for a jot if Team Neil can formulate a better plan than Big Sam and if City’s players can then carry it out.
Yes, Allardyce has overseen the odd successful relegation fight, has been around a bit and has a very loud voice but let’s keep it in perspective. He’s no Pep Guardiloa or Jose Mourinho or even Rafa Benitez. So, while the media appear mesmerised by him, pound for pound I’d take Alex Neil any day.
And Defoe is decent – no question – but he can’t do it alone and is one of those strikers who thrives on a decent supply. He’ll not be creating too many chances for himself out of nothing.
(If that sounds like I’m trying to convince myself you’re probably right).
But if City can play at a tempo that suits them and are able to find a rhythm akin to the first-half against Newcastle then I’d fancy us, especially if the personal battles are successfully negotiated.
Jonny Howson and Gary O’Neil desperately need to emerge victors in the battle for supremacy in the middle of the pitch and not permit Messrs Cattermole and Kirchhoff the upper hand. The ‘Dogs of War’ need to wear yellow and green shirts.
Timm Klose, despite having barely set foot (or boot) on the grass of Colney this week, looks to be in with a shout but if he doesn’t make it Seb Bassong and Ryan Bennett need to prove me and others wrong and show that on their day, with the wind in the right direction, they can be solid, composed and error-free.
If Klose however does pass his eleventh hour fitness test it will be a major fillip for the Canaries.
Up top, Dieumerci Mbokani and AN Other (possibly Wes?) need to offer movement and speed of thought that will render Koné and Kaboul anything but water-tight, calm and composed, both of whom need to be pulled out of position, harassed into making errors and given no chance to dominate.
And questions need to be asked of the Black Cats’ full-backs, Yedlin and van Aanholt, particularly if they can be lured into attacking positions and City, as a result, can counter-attack with pace and purpose. Brady will operate on the left; for the reasons stated, I suspect Nathan Redmond will get the nod on the right.
All of which is easy for me to say; rather harder to implement in the heat of battle. But enough individual victories across the pitch could pave the path for a collective one, especially if that ol’ devil called luck were to pay us another visit.
One possible eventuality, given that a draw would not be the end of the world for either side, is that the blood and thunder many are predicting may actually give way to a tentative game of chess that will see it end in a low or no-scoring draw. Stranger things…
The smart money however suggests that it will be one that won’t pass off without a controversial incident or two or three – with the stakes so high it seems almost inevitable.
But in order to prevail we probably need, for once, to come out on the right side of these; unlike last Saturday when self-confessed Newcastle fan, Michael Oliver waved away a more than decent penalty shout (and, in the shrug of a shoulder, gave ammunition to the conspiracy theorists).
The point is we need, and are probably due, a break – preferably one of the lucky variety – which won’t end with us etching the name ‘Andre Marriner’ on the Canary wall of shame. And if we can ally a modicum of good fortune with the players implementing Alex’s plan then who knows.
I’m not, for now, prepared to even contemplate any other eventuality.
“Never mind the danger…”
Some of you may have heard of the not-too-serious campaign to get On the Ball City sung at a tempo true to the original version of the song. Armed with #slowdownOTBC hashtag, its aim has been to get our anthem sung, pre-kick-off, akin to the excellent version that echoed around Wembley in the 1975 League Cup Final (at around 17:00 in the clip).
It’d sound brilliant. I really think we should give it a go.