Many pundits described this clash as the most important East Anglian derby for a decade and it’s difficult to argue, with both Norwich and Ipswich in the Championship top six and in the sort of form capable of making them genuine challengers for automatic promotion.
It’s easy to be cynical about the huge numbers of managerial changes and the supposed notion that they will always be beneficial – and this column focused on that heavily last weekend – but Norwich is one of the rare examples of a club this season in which a new appointment has brought around what looks like being a very successful change of direction. That’s not to say Neil Adams was doing a bad job, but Adams himself thought the indifferent run of form his team were encountering in January, when the Canaries slipped out of the play-off places, could be overturned with a fresh face in charge.
Enter the little-known Alex Neil, and it’s so far, so very good. Sunday’s victory was Norwich’s sixth on the trot in the league. Naturally, of course, Neil is taking nothing for granted. “We are now third, three points off the top, and we have still got to play the two sides above us [Derby and Middlesbrough] at home,” he said following the match. “We have given ourselves a chance, but that is all it is – a chance – and we have got to keep working hard and try to make sure we take it.”
Neil is right not to get over-excited, of course, but with automatic promotion essentially in Norwich’s hands and with form more vital than ever at this stage of the season, the timing is looking good. The Canaries’ promotion rivals are all going through somewhat of a sticky patch at the moment, to the point where although Ipswich’s players, management and fans may be licking their wounds following this defeat, even they still have the consolation of only being five points off the top despite falling to sixth.
Derby’s form has been erratic, with a comfortable win on Tuesday night but a surprising defeat and “bad day at the office” at Fulham on Saturday, while Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka has described his team’s most recent performances – a 1-0 midweek win over Bolton and Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday – as back-to-back the two worst of the season.
Bournemouth will probably have been the most relieved team on Saturday, as with the top two losing, what could have been a scenario of watching Derby and Middlesbrough trot further into the distance instead turned into a point gained after being held by Blackburn. The Cherries are going through their toughest phase in the promotion chase, down to fifth and without a win in five games, and Saturday’s draw was the first time this season Eddie Howe’s team have failed to score at Dean Court.
Nevertheless, although somewhat a missed opportunity, the point means Bournemouth are back in striking distance of second spot and still have a good enough goal difference to claim it.
At the bottom end of the table, the picture is a lot clearer, with Blackpool 15 points adrift of safety and psychologically battered after losing at home to second-bottom Wigan, stretching that gap to six points. It’s a boost for the Latics, of course, but they remain nine points behind Rotherham, who won another relegation six-pointer to leave Millwall six points stranded.
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