It has felt a matter of when and not if Norwich will be promoted for a few months but results elsewhere dictated they will have to wait at least another week to seal an immediate return to the Premier League, despite the Championship leaders overcoming lowly Derby here courtesy of a delicious Kieran Dowell free-kick. Victory over Bournemouth at Carrow Road next Saturday would secure promotion and, while Daniel Farke insists his players are not yet dancing on tables in delight, the finish line is tantalisingly close.
This was not the 7-0 demolition job they managed against Huddersfield on Tuesday and, though not a buccaneering performance, Farke cut a happy figure at full time. “It was not champagne football but a hard-fought win,” he said. “At the end of the season I’m sure we’ll celebrate promotion with this win. Brentford and Swansea have shown they have the quality to win all of their last games. We need two more points. We want to finish in style. I don’t see why we should lose any of our remaining five games.”
If Norwich and Watford are promoted automatically and Bournemouth join them in the Premier League via play-offs, it will be the first time that the three relegated clubs have returned to the top flight in tandem.
Teemu Pukki sent a deft header wide but Norwich’s search for a second proved fruitless and, in the end, they were fortunate Derby did not level in stoppage time, when Graeme Shinnie ballooned over into the South Stand after Colin Kazim-Richards snatched the ball from Tim Krul, who went walkabout in the Norwich goal.
“It was a great opportunity but it looked like it took a big bobble before he got his shot off,” said the Derby manager, Wayne Rooney. “Regardless of performance, we have to take points from our next two games before the Birmingham match.”
Farke, hands in pockets of his black trenchcoat, was a picture of calm until erupting into a fit of rage when Todd Cantwell’s poor final pass saw a slick attack unravel. There is no need for Norwich to fret but Derby are not in such a position of luxury. Birmingham’s victory at home to Stoke leaves them in a perilous position. Worse still, their fate is not in their own hands, with Rotherham, who currently occupy the final relegation spot, armed with four games in hand; Coventry, one place below them, also have a game up their sleeve.
By the time Jamal Lowe scored his second and Swansea’s third goal at Millwall, Norwich had not long emerged for the warm-up and, with Brentford also earning victory, they will have to wait a little longer to confirm promotion. Norwich were prepared for all eventualities – owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones were among those to make the trip – but ultimately departed without securing the ultimate prize. Officially, they need two more points but could be up by the time they kick off next Saturday evening, depending on results elsewhere.
Norwich deservedly took the lead when Dowell, who spent last season on loan at Derby, thrashed a left-footed free-kick into the top corner after being fouled by Craig Forsyth, one of three Derby players to pick up a booking in a one-sided first quarter. “It was an unsaveable, world-class free-kick,” said Farke.
Cantwell laid on a sumptuous pass for the overlapping Dimitris Giannoulis and the marauding Max Aarons kept the hosts on their toes, hugging the touch line throughout. Pukki, however, was shackled and only managed a handful of touches in the Derby box before being withdrawn six minutes from time.
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Derby had their moments but failed to register a shot on target until eight minutes after the interval, when Kazim-Richards drilled low at Krul. The Manchester United loanee Teden Mengi forced Krul to sprawl to his left midway through the second half but the drama was at the last, when Kazim-Richards elected not to shoot and instead lay on for Shinnie to blaze over.