Let’s take a breath.
With 18 games remaining, nothing is “must win”. Panic is neither helpful nor justified.
We’re second in the league, and we’re what commentators say we are: a very good team at this level, with a formula for success.
That said, our mini-blip has of course put added focus and pressure on tomorrow.
Let me come back to that after a brief perspective of Norwich City and Stoke City in recent years, and events earlier this season.
We’re definitely looking at a tale of two cities, each of them having experienced the best of times and the worst of times. Their journeys over the past twelve years have been very different, though.
For Norwich, it’s been relenting drama: four promotions, three relegations, staving off administration (twice), losing friends with Hughton’s style and winning them with Farke’s.
On the surface, Stoke have had relative stability. But not without trauma, particularly for their fans. Stoke’s long stay in the Premier League from 2008 to 2018 may have attracted envious looks from Norfolk (let alone Suffolk), but gates and interest plummeted under the regime of Tony Pulis.
By football standards, Mark Hughes also had a long time in charge. Not a successful one, though – and as relegation-threatened, they turned to a Messiah in the form of one Paul Lambert.
Not this time.
Since relegation in 2018, Stoke have followed the time-honoured path of regular manager changes. Lambert was succeeded by Gary Rowett, then Nathan Jones, now Michael O’Neill.
For me, Stoke is an enigma. I was surprised when they finally came down from the Premier League; given their squad, even more surprised they’ve made so little impact on the Championship.
Until last summer, they kept England goalkeeper Jack Butland (and have replaced him with Angus Gunn).
They still have a pile of players with Premier League credentials: Joe Allan, Sam Vokes, James McClean, James Chester, Ryan Shawcross, Steven Fletcher and more.
Understandable, perhaps, that they’ve changed manager so often in the search for a successful formula. Norwich have been luckier – or rather, more effective – in that regard.
We’ve already met them this season, of course – and a dramatic game it was. We seemed to be making light of the famous “Stoke on a Tuesday night in November” challenge, going ahead with two from Teemu Pukki.
In the end, though, we clung on for a 3-2 win. The evening turned with two setbacks, both for that game and subsequent ones: a red card for Emi Buendia, and an injury to Tim Krul.
The stats confirm the evidence of our eyes – City are less effective in the absence of Emi.
His return tomorrow is a reason for cheerfulness. I won’t promise we’ll win on Saturday, but I see other reasons as well for optimism about the rest of the season.
In a nutshell, I believe we have the experience, quality and composure to succeed. Daniel Farke exemplifies those qualities, and he’s surrounded himself with people who’ll reinforce them.
We have positive leaders like Tim Krul, Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson on the pitch. Alex Tettey and Jordan Hugill, even when not playing, are similar influences.
We also have a strong squad, with every reason to think it’ll be less decimated by injury in the second half of the season than the first. The returns of Onel Hernandez, Marco Stiepermann and Kieran Dowell, for instance, give us good options.
There’s no denying we’ve had a hiccup, especially in creating and converting chances. I’m optimistic but not blinkered: it’s a challenge. I just believe there’s tangible reason – not simply wishful thinking – to conclude we’ll find ways to get back on course.
Even an optimist shouldn’t imagine it’ll be easy against Stoke, though. They are draw specialists, including four of their last five league games (only Millwall have had more draws in the season). They’ve lost only seven games, the same as Reading and Bournemouth in the top six.
The last time Stoke lost a league game by more than one goal was to Swansea last October.
So, a challenge. But I have faith in the current Canaries.
I said I wouldn’t promise a win on Saturday, and I won’t. I will forecast one, though.
2-0 or 2-1 to City. The Norwich one.