The magic of the FA Cup returns on Saturday as Championship and Premier League clubs enter in round three, with North End entertaining Norwich City at Deepdale.
Alex Neil’s side are currently on a four-game winless streak, having lost their last two home games against Middlesbrough and Reading. The North End boss has said he would make changes on Saturday in order to give squad players a chance to impress.
One of those players will not be Andre Green, the winger recalled from his loan spell at PNE by Aston Villa and has since joined Charlton Athletic on loan for the remainder of the season. But the likes of Tom Bayliss, Jordan Storey and Josh Ginnelly could be amongst the names set to feature in the Canaries clash.
Daniel Farke’s Norwich, meanwhile, sit bottom of the Premier League after 21 games, seven points adrift of safety. That isn’t for the want of trying though – they have registered wins against champions Manchester City and Everton, as well as draws against Arsenal and Tottenham.
Norwich have also led their last two Premier League fixtures, only to see both Crystal Palace and Spurs score late levellers.
Given their Premier League position, Farke may also choose to rotate his squad for Saturday’s game. Striker Adam Idah could be in line to start the game, the 18-year-old having come off the bench late on against Palace on New Year’s Day. German midfielder Tom Trybull could also return, having been on the bench for the previous two league fixtures.
One of the Canaries regulars likely to start is the centre back Christoph Zimmermann.
The German missed the majority of the first part of the season through injury but returned in November and the Norwich backline is certainly bolstered whenever he is available. Zimmermann played a key part in Norwich’s promotion last season, having been signed from Borussia Dortmund II in 2017.
On his return this season against Everton, the Canaries kept a clean sheet in what was a vital 2-0 win.
And his presence has been much-needed, with fellow centre backs Ben Godfrey and Timm Klose both injured, the latter of whom is still nursing a long-term knee injury. Grant Hanley is the only natural centre back available, with French midfielder Ibrahim Amadou also able to step in when necessary.
The second major threat to watch is Mario Vrancic.
The 30-year-old midfielder has only featured nine times in the Premier League this season but has started the last two games, scoring in the 2-2 draw against Jose Mourinho’s Spurs.
Vrancic notched 10 goals last term as Norwich won the Championship, and is the club’s main penalty taker.
With the Bosnian slowly forcing his way back into Daniel Farke’s first-team plans after a spell out through injury, it could well be that Vrancic starts at Deepdale to increase his match sharpness.
This week’s opposition view comes from Connor Southwell. Connor writes for the Eastern Daily Press, Norwich Evening News and The Pink Un. You can find Connor on twitter here – @cjsouthwell1902.
It’s been a dramatic and often tiring season following Norwich City’s Premier League adventure.
It was always going to see them choose to do things differently, especially given how they choose to operate as a club. They aren’t awash with money, so the strategy of recruiting unpolished diamonds has continued.
Off the pitch, they have drastically improved their training facilities, spent a vast amount of money on their youth system and sought to sustain themselves as a self-financing club. Often, that gets perceived as a lack of ambition, but this route is more treacherous and reliant on harnessing the underdog spirit.
In numerous ways, they are ahead of the curve they set for themselves. Sporting director Stuart Webber has meticulously prepared for every outcome and this Premier League stop could be a case of taking a step backwards in order to continue heading forwards.
The football has been frustrating, especially given they are so close to possessing the capabilities needed to establish themselves as a competent Premier League club, but ultimately, they lack the nous and game management skills required to win games.
Small margins have never felt so significant, especially when you consider the marginal VAR decisions and injury-ravaged backline which have hindered their efforts dramatically. Daniel Farke isn’t a man under pressure. Most supporters are sympathetic as to the mitigating circumstances surrounding their efforts to date.
Unfortunately, their position is looking increasingly terminal meaning their top-flight stay looks set to end baring a miraculous second-half of the season. Some of the passages of their play has been exhilarating to consume, but the quality of chances they concede is proving costly.
Given the state of the Premier League table, most City supporters are realistic enough to know that the most probable outcome from here is a long march back to the Championship.
What cannot be questioned is the heart or the work rate of Farke’s men, it very much is a case of quality rather application. So, league expectations have shifted to being about continuing the high-performance levels and being competitive.
As a result, that has seen a shift in terms of how City supporters consider the FA Cup.
It’s a VAR free zone (for now…) and City haven’t really prioritised it in recent seasons. The league form has seen supporters desire more success in this competition to give them a much-needed lift.
But, City haven’t progressed beyond the third round since the 2012-13 season when they lost to then non-league Luton Town in the fourth round at Carrow Road. For the tie at Deepdale, I’d guess Farke will go something like this… McGovern; Aarons, Zimmermann, Famewo, Lewis; Amadou, Trybull; Hernandez, Stiepermann, Buendia; Idah.
As for the final score; 2-2. Bring on the replay.
North End have had a good record against Norwich in recent years and put in one of their best performances of the 2018/19 season in March when they defeated Daniel Farke’s table-topping side 3-1 at Deepdale.
With Norwich struggling at the foot of the Premier League, they may see this as a chance to experiment with different players with the league season potentially seen as the priority.
With that in mind, PNE should see this as a winnable encounter and I think they will prevail on Saturday with a 2-1 home win.
The starting XI for North End is difficult to predict, Neil already confirming that he would look to give squad players the opportunity to impress in the face of a recent lack of goals and creativity. The team I’d predict is: Ripley; Fisher, Huntington, Storey, Rafferty; Ledson, Bayliss; Ginnelly, Harrop, Bodin; Stockley.
Finally, not yet listened to our chat with club legend and current Salford City manager, Graham Alexander? Give it a listen below, both parts are available to stream in all good podcast streaming places or on our web player.