The Thursday Preview: Reading Vs Norwich
This week’s Preview marks Norwich’s second airing in this column in 2010-11, after Lanterne Rouge correctly predicted a slender home win against Barnsley back in September. In fifth place going into Saturday’s early evening trip to the Silicon Valley, the Canaries have been lingering around the play-off berths for most of the intervening period and their position in the form table speaks of a discreetly competent first third of the season.
If they haven’t quite managed to ratchet the entertainment up to the levels of last season’s remarkable League 1 title stroll, then at least Norwich are a long way clear of the mess they were engulfed in the last time I set my eyes on them. A season before the East Anglians’ eventual relegation, Glenn Roeder had recently taken over following Peter Grant’s ill-advised stab at management. Now safely nestled in the coaching staff at Birmingham, the Scot was perhaps best remembered for the signings of no marks Julien Brellier and David StÅ™ihavka, and his year in charge in which Norwich lost the likes of Robbie Earnshaw and Dickson Etuhu only to bring in sub-standard replacements was symptomatic of a club in decline.
That side of 2007-08 was marked by disorganisation and a palpable lack of punch, but this term’s crop stand in stark contrast. Starting with the reasonably rated ‘keeper John Ruddy, two experienced centre halves in Leon Barnett and Elliott Ward and a couple of solid full-backs flanking them from either side, today’s Canaries have a solid base from which to launch what looks on paper to be a particularly strong offense.
Plenty of observers raised an eyebrow when Wes Hoolahan, without doubt one of the Football League’s strongest goalscoring midfielders, opted to stay with Norwich despite their seeming demise, yet his loyalty has been rewarded. While unlucky to have made just one appearance for the Republic of Ireland to date, he continues to excel at club-level, playmaking for a side who possess a decent shot at promotion to the top flight. Whereas pre-Paul Lambert the Canaries’ threat may have been nullified if Hoolahan was marked out of the game, that’s less the case these days: with Korey Smith and Anthony Macnammee possibles out wide, Norwich have an alternative reminiscent of Swansea’s outside prongs in Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer.
Strikers Grant Holt and Chris Martin had it all too easy a league down last season, but they’ve unsurprisingly found Championship defences harder to break down than those of Stockport and Wycombe. The goals have instead been shared around, with noticeable contributions from a revitalised Andrew Crofts and Simeon Jackson.
The Canaries travel to Reading for the first time since April 2004, back when Robert Green was full of youthful promise. Like Norwich, Reading have since had a foray into the Premier League, but they’re back and, ultimately, look pretty much at home at this level. Much of the recent Royals talk has involved the inability of their strikers to strike, but with Noel Hunt hopefully onside following injury and discontent at being left out of the side, those well-documented problems should continue to subside.
Manager Brian McDermott (whose name probably still needs to be suffixed with ‘Manager’ for people to know who he is) was game enough to choose three in attack last night as Cardiff were held to a 1-1 draw, but with winger Jimmy Kà©bà© still absent with injury, the decision was perhaps indicative of the way that Reading seem to lack spark when the Malian’s unavailable. Fellow flank man Jobi McAnuff has been around to stretch and tease in recent games, but Kà©bà©’s the real catalyst and Norwich supporters will hope that he doesn’t recover from a knee injury in time for Saturday.
After some back and forth earlier on in the season, the Royals back line has now settled down with Ian Harte joining Matt Mills, Zurab Khizanishvili and Andy Griffin, a trio who were central to Reading’s push up the Championship table during the second half of last season. This defence would have kept a clean sheet on Wednesday were it not for referee Andy D’Urso’s controversial decision to award an inconclusive goal to Cardiff after Jay Bothroyd’s shot came off the bar. With the bit between their teeth, Reading should see off a Norwich side who haven’t won in their past three games, but the Madejski can be a quiet place and I wouldn’t be surprised to see City nick a point if the game starts without remark.