Norwich, Leeds deliver worst advert for the *actual* Best League in the World

Will Ford
Sargent Norwich Leeds
Josh Sargent fluffs a chance for Norwich in bore draw with Leeds.

Leeds have the advantage after a truly terrible advert for what Norwich fans will likely soon be insisting is *actually* the Best League in the World anyway…

The claim that the Premier League is the Best League in the World is never given shorter shrift than when in the presence of fans of Championship teams. In particular the supporters of yo-yo-ers like Leeds and Norwich, who are devoted to the glass-half-full notion that relegation from the top flight – or failure to get promoted from the second tier – is *actually* a good thing because the Championship is *actually* the superior division. Those protests weirdly become particularly fervent after they’re relegated or they fail to get promoted.

We’re not saying they’re wrong. The title race, the fight for the play-offs and the relegation battle all normally provide intrigue and entertainment deep into the season, and often a ludicrous number of teams can be separated by a couple of points.

The dip in quality compared to the Premier League doesn’t mean the Championship is a worse competition, yet you can’t help but feel the irony that one of the most-watched games of the season – the first of a five-game denouement to the Best League in the World – was essentially unwatchable, such was the lack of any of the tropes that typically lead that eye-rolling phrase to be uttered by those extolling the virtues of the division that both Leeds and Norwich are aiming for.

Daniel Farke’s decision to play Archie Gray as a No.10 was a strange one. Leeds’ breakout player of the season – namechecked in March by England boss Gareth Southgate as a future Three Lions star as a result of his mature displays for the Championship side – had just 16 touches in the first half, the fewest of anyone on the pitch except Josh Sargent. Typically, when operating at the base of Leeds’ midfield, everything goes through the 19-year-old; they really struggled to assert their authority on the game with his more advanced role also meaning Georginio Rutter was playing out of position.

The Frenchman has thrived this season when dropping deep to link the play, but presumably in a bid to keep things tight in the first leg with their rotten recent defensive record in mind, Farke opted to push Rutter into the No.9 position. He looked lost, and the alterations also appeared to have an adverse effect on both Crysencio Summerville and Willy Gnonto, who ran down blind alleys, hit passes out of play and grew in frustration, with Gnonto’s yellow card for sarcastically clapping the referee as good an indication of his and Leeds’ exasperation as any.

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The prize on offer, Leeds conceding 11 in their last four away games and Norwich only winning two of their ten against the top six all contributed to what the commentator described as “a cagey affair”: a renowned euphemism for a honking load of rubbish.

It wasn’t even that the defenders got the better of the forwards – they were pretty terrible as well – just that the flair players we expected something from kept ceding possession or fluffing their lines.

Starved of anything to talk about at half-time – which was particularly amusing as Sky Sports had employed four pundits to mull everything over – Troy Deeney and Billy Sharpe spent a good couple of minutes discussing “the threat” of Sargent, a totally reasonable talking point on the back of the USMNT international’s ten goals in his last 11 home games, but not on the basis of a couple of moments in the first half in which he span in behind the Leeds defence but got nowhere near two awful passes from his teammates.

Sargent did have one good opportunity, but flinched at the crucial moment despite having the edge on his opponent from a Jack Stacey cross, meaning he failed to make telling contact with his head. It didn’t trouble Illan Meslier, bouncing harmlessly out for a goal kick, and yet was the most noteworthy chance of the entire game.

Farke will be perfectly happy with the result of course, and in the second half his side did control things rather better than they managed to in the first. Having lost just twice at Elland Road this season, winning 16 of their 23 games, he will be confident of their progress to the final. But if David Wagner is happy, he shouldn’t be.

The Norwich fans, buoyant and energetic at the start of the game, were bored into near silence by the end having watched their team seemingly do very little to try to win a game that most believe they needed to if they are to reach Wembley and fight for their place in the Premier League.

But maybe the fans don’t want promotion? And even if they do they may be wise to practice their ‘*actually* the Championship is better’ rhetoric, because Leeds – despite being bang average in the first leg themselves – are very much in the driving seat to return to The Promised (But Inferior) Land at the first time of asking.

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