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Melissa Rudd: High stakes start to 2018 after strange old year for Norwich City

PUBLISHED: 17:05 31 December 2017

James Maddison and Tom Flanagan in close-quarters action at Burton. 
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

James Maddison and Tom Flanagan in close-quarters action at Burton. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

©Focus Images Limited +447814 482222

If failing to beat a team on a run of eight straight home defeats wasn’t quite poor enough, Saturday’s draw at Burton will seem a whole lot worse if Norwich City don’t beat Millwall this afternoon.

Burton keeper Stephen Bywater was rarely troubled by City. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdBurton keeper Stephen Bywater was rarely troubled by City. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Daniel Farke’s decision to make six changes to a side that had just won only their second game in 12 in order to preserve his strongest team for Carrow Road today is a huge risk.

Some personnel changes were to be expected given the festive fixture pile-up, but I don’t think any of us predicted that both goal scorers against Birmingham and two of the defence who coped so efficiently would be named as substitutes at the Pirelli Stadium.

Given Alex Pritchard has only recently returned from months out, his absence from the starting XI was understandable, and afterwards Farke explained that James Maddison wasn’t even 100pc at St Andrew’s so he didn’t want to risk him from the start. As in the reverse fixture in September, he had to try and make his impact from the bench late on. That meant that four of the midfield and attack who also started in that stalemate – Tom Trybull, Mario Vrancic, Wes Hoolahan and Nelson Oliveira – were tasked with breaking the deadlock. Again, they failed to do so.

In fact, City managed the same number of shots on target (two) in both 0-0 draws against Nigel Clough’s side. Another clean sheet was, of course, a positive, but testing the goalkeeper of one of the poorest teams in the division just four times over 180 minutes is a sad reflection of how often City are reliant on Maddison to both carve out openings and try his own luck at goal.

Prior to Saturday, the 21-year-old had created 54 chances this season, more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues. Yet only Burton and Birmingham have scored fewer goals than City in the Championship.

It has been a strange old year for Norwich supporters. The early part spent watching a side so often dishevelled defensively but capable of scoring for fun, especially on home turf. That included five against Nottingham Forest in February and smashing seven against Reading in April. Since Farke sorted out a leaky defence, though, a more resolute backline has coincided with a distinct lack of firepower, felt more at Carrow Road than anywhere else.

There has been a lot of talk about what a calendar year really means in football following Harry Kane’s surpassing of Alan Shearer’s Premier League goalscoring record. In the last 12 months in the Championship, Norwich have won 18 matches, lost 16, drawn 13, and sacked a manager in the process.

They now sit 13th in the table, and a point closer to the relegation places than the play-off spots. After the promotion pushes and subsequent battle to stay up in recent campaigns, the two half-seasons incorporated in 2017 have instead made for a mediocre year for the Carrow Road faithful.

The worry now is that may just be the case for a few seasons yet, whether the Norwich board keep faith with Farke or not. Given that Stuart Webber was put in place to carry out a long-term project and Farke was his chosen man to deliver it, you would guess he will be given the necessary time. Yet which players City can keep hold of in this transfer window might prove almost as significant.

In the short-term, this City squad will need to cope with the pressure far better in this afternoon’s clash with Millwall than they did in the last home fixture against Brentford, after which Farke said he had built up the game too much. Unfortunately, yielding just a point at Burton and missing the opportunity to get a winning momentum going has only increased the stakes today against a side who are yet to win away all season. None of us needs reminding of Norwich’s propensity to inadvertently help teams end such unwanted runs.

With the January window officially open the rumour mill is about to kick into full force regarding the future of City’s most prized assets. Let’s just hope 2018 gets off to the right start on the pitch at least!

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