A Tough Night's Work
This pre-season friendly against the four time European Champions, Ajax would be a real test of how far Norwich City have come in their preparations for the Premier League.
On paper, Ajax would be a tough proposition. They are the current Dutch Champions, winning the title without too much trouble last season and in recent games have beaten Southampton One Nil and Celtic four nil.
I took my little lad along to this one, hoping to get a look at some of our new signings, which is part of the excitement for the fans. However, only Robert Snodgrass was named as a substitute. Steven Whittaker is still injured and may miss the start of the season. Michael Turner was absent having not long got back from South Korea with Sunderland and Jacob Butterfield is still on the road to recovery from his knee injury, albeit not far away now.
This left a very familiar starting line-up for City. The side obviously has a long lasting legacy from Paul Lambert and other than James Vaughan, have all been regulars in last season`s first Premier League campaign.
The game and Ajax started very quickly. They immediately surged forward and it was obvious that they are a team very comfortable in possession. Captained by Dutch International defender, Gregory Van der Wiel it didn`t take long for them to make the first chance.
Right winger, Jody Lukoki received the ball on the right and danced backwards and forwards in front of Marc Tierney (nice to see him back) on the edge of the City box. Tierney was shown the ball by Lukoki and dived in. Lukoki jinked past the City left back`s lunge and sent a lovely cross into the now packed penalty area.
Christain Erikson got a touch and flicked the ball, looping it towards goal. Ruddy was beaten and the ball bounced back off the cross bar and was cleared for a corner - there were less than two minutes on the clock. "This might be a long night", I thought.
I needn`t have worried though as City and James Vaughan in particular started to cause problems for the Dutchmen. With just six minutes gone, Vaughan received the ball centrally and near to goal with Joel Veltman for company.
The pair tussled for the ball and Vaughan showed his strength and got away from his man. He was right on the edge of the area with only the Ajax keeper to beat when Veltman cynically pulled him back. Vaughan went down and the ref blew his whistle.
If this had been a competitive match, Veltman would`ve received a red card for denying a goal scoring opportunity. The ref was never going to send anyone off unless it was a serious assault but it was very cynical all the same.
Justice was done though when Pilkington stepped up and curled a great free kick into the top left hand corner. Jasper Cillissen could only watch as the Canaries went one nil up.
After that though, it was very tough for City to create any further chances. Vaughan and Holt combined well on a few occasions and Holt produced a lovely back heel at one point to send Elliot Bennett away but those Dutch boys were well drilled and kept the shackles on our attack for most of the time.
For all their possession though, Ajax didn`t actually trouble Ruddy too much. He took a few crosses comfortably and although they were playing keep ball the Dutchmen`s penetration was largely blunted by a determined and well organised City side.
That was until the half hour mark when Lasse Schone was allowed to run forwards about 30yards out.
He hit a pile driver of a shot with his right foot that screamed into Ruddy`s top right hand corner, giving him no chance. You could argue that he should`ve been closed down a bit better but it was a cracking strike that brought a round of applause from the 16,000 strong crowd.
At half time, Vaughan was replaced by Hoolahan with Hughton looking to pack the midfield to try to gain more of the ball.
This often resulted though in Holt being isolated and last season`s top scorer struggled to make much impact and he didn`t have a clear cut chance all night.
Ajax were unlucky not to score on 57 minutes when a long ball over the top sent Lukoki away and Ruddy surged out to meet him. The Ajax man tipped the ball past the City Keeper but the impressive Ryan Bennett was on hand to clear the ball off the line.
This was about as good as it got for either side after that. The game took on a form that reminded me a little of those Chelsea games against Barca last season.
It was Ajax that played the possession game, plenty of passes but without much real penetration and it was City that were the determined defensive side.
On 67 minutes, we saw the introduction of Robert Snodgrass to a loud cheer and applause for the lively Elliot Bennett.
Snodgrass immediately tried to get the ball to Holt but his pass came to nothing. This late cameo for the former Leeds man didn`t really tell me too much about his ability and although it`s nice to see him finally in a Norwich shirt the upcoming games against MK Dons and Hull will be of more use to him.
By the end of the game, wholesale changes had been made with Surman, Crofts, Morison, Lappin, Barnett and Ayala all getting some late game time.
The match finished as a draw and it was a useful work out against a top European side.
The Ajax players are ahead of City in terms of pre season matches and I believe that this was their seventh game in recent weeks. It showed as they were that bit sharper and looked very comfortable - never hurried or distracted in their search for the next pass.
However, they couldn`t beat us and it took a very good strike for them to score. Pilkington again scored the type of free kick that we know he has in his repertoire and it`s very much about minutes played at this stage.
The pleasing thing was that we defended quite well, generally. All of the back four did well and Marc Tierney looked like he was going to have a very tough night early on against Lukoki, but he grew into it.
Ryan Bennett and Elliot ward were solid enough and not much beat them in the air.
In midfield, Elliot Bennett and Pilkington were lively going forward (when they had the chance) and Johnson and Howson in the middle had to be disciplined and strong and on the whole, they were.
City were often reduced to playing the counter attacking game, much as Chelsea had to against Barca and they didn`t get many chances. But let`s not overlook the quality of the opposition. They have won the Dutch title and will be in the Champions League again this season.
One final thought concerns James Vaughan. It was great to see him back on the pitch and he showed in flashes that he has the pace and strength to be a threat in our league. There are rumours currently abounding about both Celtic and Blackburn wanting him on loan.
If he can remain fit, it will be like having a new player. I`d honestly be surprised if Chris Hughton would let him go out on loan at this stage of pre-season. I think that any such deal would seem likely only if a better replacement could be found - and better strikers than James Vaughan will cost us a lot of money.
It seems more likely to me that Chris Martin would be a better punt for going out on loan somewhere. We`ll know more in the coming days and weeks and stranger things have happened but I`m not convinced - unless a much better player becomes available. I think Robin Van Persie`s future is still up in the air…