Fifty-two weeks ago, Norwich City opened up their Premier League campaign with games against Liverpool and Manchester City, while our Lads were chugging on League One dregs with glamour ties against Burton Albion and AFC Wimbledon. What a difference a year makes. Both teams now meet on Saturday in the halfway house that is the EFL Championship, with Sunderland one point ahead of their Norfolk opponents.
When you think of Norwich your mind tends to drift back to a pissed-up Delia Smith having a half-time meltdown, or maybe Norfolk’s staple export, Colman’s mustard (but we really all know it’s our favourite mid-life crisis DJ, Alan Partridge). Beyond that, there’s a set of Canaries stuck not in a coal mine but rather a divisional juxtaposition, Norwich being a football club currently trapped in a promotion and relegation cycle fuelled by parachute payments.
Brummie Dean Smith remains their manager, and he might’ve been lurching toward PTSD when they opened up this season with back-to-back defeats followed by a half-time booing in their draw at home to Wigan Athletic. But football is a fickle game and a couple of wins later things are starting to look up for the Carrow Road mob, and they’ll be looking to make it three league wins on the bounce when they arrive at the Stadium of Light tomorrow lunchtime.
Smith still has a lot of quality at his disposal, with most of his Premier League squad retained. Striker Teemu Pukki is the obvious threat up front, however it’s American Josh Sergeant who has been out of the blocks fasted, netting three from three starts (back of the net!). The Screech Powers doppelganger struggled to cut it in the top flight following his £8.5m move from Werder Bremen last season, only netting twice in 26 appearances. He may have found his level in the Championship, and can play up top or on either wing.
Scottish international Grant Hanley captains our visitors in the heart of defence, and brings a lot of experience to the team. £20m-rated right back and academy product Max Aarons will be a threat on the overlap, and has already netted once so far this term.
24-year-old child Todd Cantwell will be looking to have a big season after a frustrating one last year, which saw him in and out of the team before a loan move in January back to the Championship with now promoted Bournemouth. Left-back is an area of weakness for the visitors, as they seek to bring someone in while the window remains open, with midfielder Kenny McLean currently covering that position (sound familiar?).
Alex Neil will have good knowledge of his old Norwich team, and will certainly be wanting his current team to do him justice and continue our unbeaten record at home this campaign. Smith prefers a 4-3-3, so Neil will have to decide whether he sticks with the proven 3-5-2 or looks to cancel them out with something similar. There are no fresh injuries since last time out, and we’ve had the advantage of no midweek game, a luxury Norwich didn’t have when going out of the EFL Cup on penalties to Bournemouth on Tuesday night.
If Neil can teach Luke O’Nien some restraint in training this week, he may remain preferred to Bailey Wright on the right side of the back three. Dan Neil is available again after suspension, so may come straight in for Elliot Embleton. I would imagine Corry Evans will be reinstated in the middle of the park in favour of Jay Matete, following Evans’ return to full fitness after his pre-QPR injury. It’s unlikely new boy Jewison Bennette will feature any time soon, and likewise Jan Paul van Hecke who, at the time of writing, isn’t yet a Sunderland player.
This is the Lads’ first test against one of last season’s relegated sides, and our tails should be up after a fantastic win away at Stoke and an all-important clean sheet. The Lads will be hoping to produce some liquid football and stop Norwich from bouncing back. It’s an inconvenient early kick off, but a continuing sign of how relevant we still are and how much we remain a decent draw for the Sky audience.
It’s another chance to put a marker down on how far we have come during Neil’s tenure. What better way than leaving the Canaries with nothing to sing about come Saturday afternoon.