Somehow, City are playing on Boxing Day.
After 12 days of Covid mayhem with a cancelled trip to London in the middle, the Canaries return to the pitch against Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, who travel up from the capital having had their own coronavirus-related issues in midweek.
With the expected returns of Christos Tzolis, Mathias Normann, Milot Rashica and Ozan Kabak from injury, City’s selection crisis appears to be easing a little, or enough to field a team at least.
While the break enforced by the postponement of a daunting visit to fifth-placed West Ham was frustrating – especially for those supporters who had purchased tickets and paid for non-refundable travel – what it has provided for Norwich officials and fans alike is a chance to reflect; an opportunity to put their abject defeat to Aston Villa into perspective.
A break can often provide optimism. Where negative momentum had once ruled now resides neutrality and a fresh start, a concept City are well aware of given the impact it made during Dean Smith’s first few games as a Yellow.
By contrast, the idea of a fresh start can also build something up to be embarrassingly knocked down, as was the case when Southampton’s 3-0 win at Carrow Road brought a swift end to hopes that Project Restart could give Daniel Farke’s Canaries the lift they needed to stay in the Premier League.
If Smith’s side are to make the most of this fresh start there’s one thing they need above all: goals. Fail to score on Sunday and they’ll have drawn four consecutive blanks in home games.
The task, however, will not be easy. If West Ham were daunting, the Gunners are silently excellent, and they’re now a place above their London rivals. Any viewers of Arsenal’s recent demolition of Leeds United will be aware of the ruthlessness with which they can attack a wounded animal, and while Marcelo Bielsa’s side were wounded by injuries, the Canaries are at least wounded by defeat.
If Arteta’s leadership was ever in question, the answer has been provided by how swiftly and competently he’s dealt with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drama that could easily have spiralled amuck.
If the Spaniard expects an easy ride, however, he’s unlikely to get one from a side sent into battle by Smith and Craig Shakespeare. What was so startling about City’s humbling at the hands of the Villains was the ease with which they were outfought, the accommodation they provided.
Even in the short time Norwich fans have seen their side led by Smith they’ve come to expect work rate and desire as a minimum, and it’s no surprise that the first lapse came amid a crisis that left players tired and unwell having played three days earlier.
While the crisis was largely a negative, it allowed players who have so far been in the shadows a chance to step up, and there wasn’t a shortage of individuals who did.
After being excluded from Smith’s first matchday squad, Kabak produced comfortably his best display in a City shirt against Manchester United. Przemyslaw Placheta provided perhaps the only semblance of creativity in the Aston Villa defeat and Jacob Sorensen finally flourished in a central role, keeping Cristiano Ronaldo quieter than any other striker to step foot in NR1 this season.
At the forefront of the various selection decisions facing Smith is what he does with these players; whether he takes a risk and rewards their performances or goes with the trusted group who have been missed.
One player who has certainly been missed enough to walk back into the starting XI is the aforementioned Normann, whose creative presence has been conspicuous by its absence, even if his industry has been accounted for by an upturn in the form of both Lukas Rupp and Kenny McLean.
Also likely to be welcomed back into the fold is Rashica, whose injury came just as he was hitting top form. If the Kosovan can reproduce the performances he turned in against Southampton and Wolves, Takehiro Tomiyasu is in for a long afternoon.
In any case, it’ll be good to have City back at Carrow Road, in their first Boxing Day home match since drawing 3-3 with Nottingham Forest in 2018.
A Christmas cracker paralleling that magical comeback may not be in store, but if the Canaries can earn two more points than they did on that occasion, they might just make up for it.