Lambert seems to have all bases covered
Chris Lakey Norwich City 2, Newcastle United 1: Paul Lambert insists that nothing can be read into pre-season performances, but the sight of the besuited manager applauding from the touchline as his charges old and new set about the Premier League new-boys had a certain evidential feel about it.
Norwich City 2, Newcastle United 1
Paul Lambert insists that nothing can be read into pre-season performances, but the sight of the besuited manager applauding from the touchline as his charges old and new set about the Premier League new-boys had a certain evidential feel about it.
The debating societies would have a field day on the motion: “Norwich look better equipped for the Championship than Newcastle do for the Premier League.”
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Chris Hughton's side - missing one of last season's City heroes, goalkeeper Fraser Forster, through injury - are a week or so behind City as far as preparation is concerned, but they are a league higher, which sort of evens it out, you'd assume.
What was clear on Saturday was that Lambert's decision to get to work quickly on his summer transfer targets has paid off: while we can all take a pretty decent punt at what his preferred starting line-up is, Newcastle fans are none the wiser. Their manager, Chris Hughton, was left admitting he needs to bring in new players to ensure his lot have half a chance in the big league next season - and magnanimously admitting that City were the better team on the day. He had to. Not that it matters right now.
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While the strike pairing of Andy Carroll and Leon Best - is he really a top-flight player? - toiled in the sun, Chris Martin made hay, scoring the goals which secured a morale-boosting victory.
Martin looked sharp and trim, his touch good, his aim true, although the celebration of his first goal - pointing a finger at Wes Hoolahan and then following it - reflected the part the little Irishman played.
It's hard to go through the City side and criticise after this performance, and while it's equally unfair to name names, some simply stand out - David Fox in the heart of the midfield is terrific on the ball, a creator of space, as is Andrew Surman to his left, while Andrew Crofts perhaps won't mind being described as the muscle in the middle. That doesn't take anything away from his performance: after all, they can't all be glamour boys. Crofts does the simple things well, and links up perfectly with the others. It's a team with plenty of artists and few painters and decorators - but it isn't a team that lacks bite. Fox and Surman can mix it - Crofts certainly can - but their craft stands out. And whoever said Surman and Hoolahan can't play in the same team?
The midfield performance was perhaps the most encouraging of the day, but there was plenty to admire elsewhere.
Elliott Ward won't be happy with his role in Shola Ameobi's equaliser, but he hasn't played much and, for now, it can be put down to rust. Alongside him Michael Nelson almost allowed Ameobi to ghost in for a second, but that mistake was more than compensated for by some excellent tackles and blocks.
Up front, Martin was paired with Simeon Jackson in a partnership that looks as if it could prove fruitful in the absence of Grant Holt, although Hoolahan did his best to steal the show, playing just behind the front two.
City flexed their attacking muscle early on when Russell Martin found Jackson, who was forced wide, but had the strength to earn a corner. Then Hoolahan produced his first trick, chipping the ball on the run to Chris Martin in the area - his shot brilliantly saved by Tim Krul.
It brought a smile to Lambert's face, who then saw Surman curl one wide and Fox play a superb volleyed pass to Jackson, whose progress was ended by an offside flag.
Fabricio Collocini hacked down Jackson as the new boy started to enjoy himself, but on 38 minutes it was a case of standing and admiring one of the old brigade at work. Hoolahan benefited from Ryan Taylor's wayward pass and headed towards the area, his footwork and twisting body leaving Collocini and young James Tavernier for dead, before he squared it for Martin to tap into a empty goal. It was excellent play by Hoolahan and bodes well for a season in the Championship.
Nile Ranger had a goal disallowed soon after for offside, although it took some time to filter through to the Newcastle fans in the 13,000-strong crowd - perhaps they were wondering why their defence looked so shakey, the midfield so disinterested in utilising Carroll and Best, who were so often isolated as they waited for some decent service. Not that it matters much now.
Hughton made seven changes at half-time, but aside from Ameobi, who at least brought a little flair to the Newcastle attack, it made little difference.
Two minutes into the second half Ameobi levelled, turning Ward far too easily and firing home from six yards.
Hoolahan tested Krul again and then couldn't quite reach a low cross from Chris Marin, who out-muscled Mike Williamson, while Jackson put the ball into the net only for centre half Nelson to be flagged offside.
Alan Smith introduced an unnecessary level of brutality that his career has been noted for - and perhaps not much else - when he hacked Chris Martin down from behind, the lack of any sort of apology perhaps expected.
Newcastle had their moments; John Ruddy had to pluck a Haris Vuckic curler out of the air, while Ameobi was given too much space on the right only to be denied by the City keeper's legs.
But Hoolahan was still having fun: his touch saw a Chris Martin shot saved before Surman shot wide and then a back-heel sent Crofts on his way - Hoolahan also ending the move, albeit with a wayward shot.
But on 75 minutes City were ahead again, sub Anthony McNamee crossing from the right and Martin getting the merest of touches with his head to guide the ball into the far corner.
Russell Martin produced the “save of the day” stretching to nick the ball off Peter Lovenkrands' boot in the area, although City were fortunate to see Ameobi head over and Lovenkrands head against the bar.
But four minutes from time came a fine passing move by City which ended with a Chris Martin shot blocked and Krul saving well from Matt Gill. It was quality stuff and perhaps proved the inspiration for a one-man pitch invasion which appeared to have no point whatsoever. No season ticket thrown at a manager, no message of defiance in a run that took him from one end of the pitch to another. Not that it matters right now.
What does matter is that Lambert appears to have lost none of his magic in finding the right players and using them at the right place and the right time. From back to front, this looked like a decent team and the City supporters among the 13,000 crowd clearly enjoyed what they saw.
If this line-up was any indication of what is to come, then we should expect a side that can play a bit, that can pass the ball well, that won't launch rockets for the strikers to chase down all afternoon.
If it doesn't work out, then it has to be a side that can adapt immediately, a side that can change formation and change tactics. It can't be one-dimensional.
If the performance was encouraging, consider those who didn't even get a kick - Holt, Zak Whitbread, Steve Smith, Stephen Hughes, Korey Smith, Jens Berthel Askou. That's half a team of players who you'd expect could all lay genuine claims to involvement on a weekly basis next season.
With George Francomb looking more than a decent prospect, Lambert appears to have all bases covered as far as numbers and positions are concerned: unless his luck turns rotten, he shouldn't have to look around for volunteers to fill gaps.
At the moment, all looks fairly bright in the garden - and that DOES matter right now.
t Scorers: Norwich: Chris Martin (38, 75), Newcastle: Ameobi (47)
t Yellow Cards: None
t Attendance: 13,195
t Referee: Fred Graham (Essex)
t Man of the Match: David Fox