Sport

Canaries back in top two as promotion race hots up

Norwich City returned to the Championship’s automatic promotion places for the first time since October 2014 with an Easter Monday win over Sheffield Wednesday. A brace from Bradley Johnson, who has been in fine form this season, sealed a useful three points for the Canaries in their quest for an immediate return to the Premier League.

Since the appointment of Alex Neil in January, City’s form has been red hot, taking 39 points from a possible 51 since his inaugural win over Bournemouth. That run, which also included vitals wins against promotion rivals Watford, Blackburn, Nottingham Forest and, of course, bitter rivals Ipswich Town, has taken the Canaries from seventh to second, just a point shy of table-toppers Bournemouth.

What lies behind Norwich’s charge towards the summit? Arguably, the greatest improvement in the team since Neil took the reins has been psychological. All around Carrow Road, from the players to fans, there is certainly a belief and togetherness that was altogether lacking under his predecessors, Chris Hughton and Neil Adams. This has stemmed not only from Norwich’s brilliant results – which of course help confidence – but from the Scotsman’s attitude. His honesty in the aftermath of Norwich’s losses to Brentford and the shock home defeat to Wigan has been a breath of fresh air for Norwich supporters.

In contrast, Hughton and Adams were often content, despite poor performances, to respond by suggesting Norwich had played well but it ‘just didn’t happen for us’. The defensive approach isn’t good enough for Neil however; he demands higher standards from his players.

Interestingly, certain players have enjoyed a renaissance under the new boss. In particular, right back Steven Whittaker, who was jeered off in Norwich’s defeat to Brentford in January, must come in for special praise. In the face of strong criticism from many City supporters, the Scottish international has upped both his offensive and defensive game.

Additionally, the return of Sebastien Bassong from ‘exile’ at the heart of defence has contributed to an improved record of seven clean sheets since Neil’s appointment. With Michael Turner departing to join Fulham, Bassong has forged a strong partnership with Russell Martin, seemingly putting to bed any question of the man who succeeded the Cameroonian as captain reverting to right-back.

However, Norwich’s form has been largely down to the quality of its midfield and the dominance that such quality brings in games. With Alex Tettey shielding the back four, and on-loan West Brom man Graham Dorrans and Jonny Howson offering drive from the middle of the park, Norwich have both attacking and defensive quality in abundance.

But two players in particular have stood out. Bradley Johnson’s 13 goals so far this season, including crackers against Blackburn and Ipswich, in addition to his muscular presence on the pitch have seen the former Leeds man emerge as a Player of the Year candidate. Meanwhile, Republic of Ireland international Wes Hoolahan’s magical displays have also contributed to Norwich’s upturn in form; his eye for a killer pass has earned him ten assists for the season, as well as three goals in March alone.

Overall, it can be seen that Norwich’s evident quality is finally being utilised to maximum effect and, with five games left to play at the time of writing, their timing couldn’t be much better. With their fate in their own hands, the challenge for the Canaries will be to maintain those performance levels and ensure that complacency doesn’t creep in.

In all likelihood, the vital game will be the mid-April fixture at home to Middlesbrough, which could prove crucial in deciding whether either side finishes in the second-tier’s automatic promotion spots. Whatever happens, Carrow Road is a great place to be right now.

14/04/2015

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