The Championship is all about momentum, and having weathered the storm of a drab end to a ten-match unbeaten run to string together four 2-1 victories, it would be safe to assume the Canaries’ momentum is due to dry up any second.
An extra boost is needed to keep up the promotion chase, and Messrs Dowell, McLean, Cantwell and Krul may just be that boost.
It had started to look like the luck might run out when Reading’s fortunate equaliser wrongfooted Michael McGovern at the Madejski. The excitement of an early goal and an aggressive press was dulled significantly when a series of deflections resulted in Michael Olise’s fourth of the season, and there was a feeling, at least from me, that this may be one match too far for City’s seemingly unstoppable charge.
The Royals have shown themselves to be tough opposition and were prime candidates for promotion following a ruthless and clinical, if short, path of destruction while City were settling into their rhythm. The sort of run Reading put together was the mark of a good Championship side, while the one City are putting together is the sign of a strong candidate for the league title.
However, even candidates for league titles can’t win every game, and it’s natural for a football fan to have the feeling that the chances of winning grow smaller with every game. Rarely does this situation arise, though, when a team is just weeks away from improving their options hugely.
Kenny McLean is fully reintegrated; Todd Cantwell has three significant substitute appearances since returning and Kieran Dowell has played his first minutes since limping off against Preston nearly three months ago. Tim Krul is available for Cardiff’s visit, Jordan Hugill is back from a shoulder complaint and Ben Gibson will be ready by Boxing Day. Placheta, Hernandez, Quintilla… the list goes on.
The fact that Daniel Farke had options such as Dowell and Cantwell on the bench on Wednesday showed just the kind of depth Stuart Webber was hoping to add in the summer, and the investment, a significant outlay given the pandemic, is looking smart after teething problems early in the season.
Alex Tettey, a man who may have been puzzled as to how a single first-team opportunity would come his way this season, became a symbol of squad depth at the peak of the injury crisis, starting three times in a week despite his age and damaged knees. There is a tendency growing in this group to step up to the plate whenever required, and it would be foolish to assume the likes of Dowell won’t do the same.
The attacking midfielder has years of Championship experience even at 23, and was recently joined in the physio room by an Onel Hernandez who contributed to City’s last promotion significantly, a Sam Byram who proved effective in the Premier League and a Xavi Quintilla who looked every bit the perfect replacement for Jamal Lewis.
Tim Krul may prove vital in the visit of Cardiff to Carrow Road, especially given the threat they pose at set-pieces (they’ve scored 12 times from them this season, five more than any other side in the division) and the vulnerability the Canaries’ defence seems to possess when their Dutch number one is missing.
Jordan Hugill has played a pivotal role in the seeing-out of one-goal victories since his return, not simply through wasting time with his late introductions but also by being a physical presence that allows City to clear the ball more directly and relieve some pressure with the ball in the corner. He’ll feel he’s edged ahead of Adam Idah in the pecking order, another option currently recovering on the sidelines.
His injury was twinned with that of young full-back Bali Mumba, who impressed late on against Swansea and will be ready to push Quintilla and Max Aarons upon returning from a ten-week absence at a similar time to Idah, who had been making positive strides prior to picking up a knee issue on Irish international duty.
Every time one assumes that the depth of quality players is at its end, another one enters as an option to be explored – an excellent problem for Farke to have.
Webber has meticulously assembled a squad that is ripe for top-two success and has already been proved right with regards to squad depth, allowing the boss to put out a first XI even when a full team and bench of players were out injured.
Now that the crisis is easing, we’re about to see the other positive to squad depth – the options it provides when all are fit.
Norwich City are on fire and, with the help of some familiar faces, could get even stronger.