Norwich City lead guessing games

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
11:57 AM

Hands up how many of you predicted Norwich’s starting XI against Stoke? Right. I see. Now how many of you managed to do it before the alarm clock went off? That’s better. You can put your hand down now, Mr Lambert. Thank you.

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The City boss made six changes from Norwich’s Premier League bow the previous weekend at Wigan. Injuries to Zak Whitbread and Steve Morison arguably forced Lambert’s hand. Then again, Stoke proved beyond doubt that trying to second guess the Scot is a dubious past-time.

Lambert has made it clear everyone ‘inside the building’ must do their duty this season. The Canaries’ long march from League One was built on consistent team selections.

Familiarity bred continued success. The much-loved midfield diamond, with Wes Hoolahan at the point, prodding and probing for Grant Holt and Chris Martin, underpinned Norwich’s elevation from League One. With due credit to Simeon Jackson’s defining cameo, which carried the club over the Championship threshold towards the end of last season.

Hoolahan and David Fox both had to settle for a watching brief against Stoke. The underlying message from Lambert is clear. If City’s own players are kept on their proverbial toes from game to game, what chance supporters, pundits or far more importantly, Norwich’s opposition.

Be in no doubt a manager of Tony Pulis’ calibre will have scouted Norwich extensively during pre-season and that first 90 minutes when it mattered for real at the DW Stadium. The game at the top level comes attached with support staff, ProZone analysts or even, as I heard earlier this week, ‘match assessors’ – the title bestowed on former Republic of Ireland manager Steve Staunton after he joined Steve Bruce’s backroom team at Sunderland in a scouting role.

Managers criss-crossing the motorways of the land to watch games at every level are a thing of the past. The daily demands on the modern boss have fostered a culture of delegation. The Premier League is too huge a global entity to operate any other way.

Pulis would have needed scouts with mystical properties to plan for a Norwich side minus Hoolahan, Fox and Morison – a key trio who all played their part at Wigan.

When football at this level is decided on infinitesimally fine margins, Lambert’s team selection injected an added element of surprise. We’ll never know whether Stoke’s sluggish first half display at Carrow Road was a result of midweek exertions on foreign fields in the pursuit of Europa League qualification or Norwich’s wholesale re-shuffle. But it seems fair to deduce it played a part.

Norwich were always going to be something of an unknown commodity – at least in the early weeks and months. How many of Chelsea’s collection of superstars will know Grant Holt’s game as well as they do Wayne Rooney’s? Anthony Pilkington over Ashley Young. John Ruddy over Pepe Reina.

The Blues’ new young boss, Andre Villas-Boas, was Jose Mourinho’s assistant scout at the Bridge in a former incarnation. The Portuguese’s meteoric rise through the ranks has been forged on almost forensic attention to detail.

Lambert’s major surgery to his starting personnel from Wigan to Stoke will ensure the young Chelsea chief has a busy week’s homework ahead prior to the Canaries’ visit.

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