One of my pet hates is the over-hyping of a single game’s importance. To describe a match in the middle of a 46-game season as “make-or-break” or “a six-pointer” is ridiculous.
Unless it’s referring to the employment prospects of a Watford manager, of course. Then “make-or-break” may be fair enough – but absurd if it’s referring to a team’s prospects over the season.
Just wanted to get that off my chest before I preview our six-pointer against Hull on Tuesday night.
Actually, there may be some justification in this case. Not for the single game against Hull. But it’s the start of a four-match run – home to Hull, Birmingham and Cardiff, away to Wigan – that will go a long way to determine whether we’re genuine play-off candidates or also-rans.
Obviously, I hope it’s the former. By the way, I don’t subscribe to the view that we shouldn’t want promotion because we’re so mediocre we’d be humiliated next season. The hottest favourites for Premier League relegation in recent years were Huddersfield after their promotion under Stuart Webber and David Wagner – but they survived.
That’s getting a long way ahead of ourselves. The immediate challenge is Hull City.
I have to confess, at this stage I expected us to be 25 points ahead of Hull. Not, as we are, one point ahead.
That’s a reflection of our underperformance, of course. But it’s also a reflection of Hull’s positive results under their new manager since November, Liam Rosenior.
When I previewed our game at Hull back in August, I discussed their manager of the time, Georgian legend Shota Arveladze. He presided over their 2-1 win over us then but didn’t last too much longer.
Liam Rosenior has engineered a quiet turnround in Hull’s league results, particularly since the start of the year: Won 3, Drawn 2, Lost 1. Like Bristol City, they’re on decent form and won’t be pushovers.
Norwich, though, have to impose themselves. David Wagner said his team on Saturday would be ready to make amends for the Burnley performance – but they weren’t. There won’t be too many more chances if we’re to make a run at the playoff places.
That particularly applies to our home form. Despite Saturday, our away record this season is decent: if our home record matched it, we’d be comfortably in the top six. But the reverse is striking: if our home record were replicated away, we’d now be 15th.
It has to change – and the three forthcoming games at Carrow Road present a chance.
Wagner’s team selection issues for Tuesday are rather different from what we’d have guessed a few weeks ago.
His goalkeeping options are the envy of the division – yet both Tim Krul and Angus Gunn have made costly mistakes in the past two games. I thought Angus was unlucky to lose his place and would now stick with him.
At the other end of the pitch, Adam Idah may have shown enough to start in place of Josh Sargent. He certainly has from where I stand.
I haven’t always been the greatest fan of Onel Hernandez. But we certainly looked more potent at Preston and Coventry with him in the starting line-up.
Meanwhile Kieran Dowell, a worthy nominee for Championship Player of the Month, obviously keeps his place. (Who’d have thought a couple of months ago that we’d be uttering those words?)
Our choice of personnel in midfield and up front is especially crucial given the main challenge of playing Hull: in six league games this year, they’ve conceded only three goals. They’re not prolific scorers, but they’re hard to break down.
At the other end, we do need to be wary of Oscar Estupinian; with 12 league goals, he’s their leading scorer by a distance. No excuse for not being aware of the threat, given that two of his goals were against us in that August defeat.
In truth, the big problem of the present City side, now apparent under David Wagner as it was under Dean Smith, isn’t our technical ability but mental strength and hunger.
If I were David Wagner on Tuesday, I’d challenge my squad with words from Gary Gowers’ piece here on Sunday:
“There are teams who, from a technical perspective, are not as good [as us] but who are far better equipped to battle and mix it”
It’s an issue whose solution is medium-term rather than immediate, as Gary says. But surely the players’ professional pride would demand some response.
As always, I’ll err on the side of optimism and predict we’ll see a more assertive performance. It won’t be the most important factor, but I’m hoping City will help me have a happy Valentine’s Day.