City boss Paul Lambert all-but dared anyone to draw too many conclusions from tonight’s lightning-interrupted, 1-1 draw against Real Zaragoza as Norwich’s return to the Premiership loomed ever closer.
Ritchie de Laet’s first-half strike capped another eye-catching outing for the on-loan Manchester United centre-half; Kyle Naughton looks the real Premiership article; David Fox sat at the base of the much-loved diamond and duly set the tempo of proceedings; Anthony Pilkington made his first, ‘competitive’ appearance for five months and looked a real athlete.
What any of the above might mean for Wigan (a) on August 13th, however, is still anyone’s guess.
And Lambert wasn’t about to give away too many clues.
“We just thought that most of the lads that started tonight, we’d get them through the game – some not – but never read too much into friendlies,” said the Canary chief, as a clutch of players got the full 90 minutes under their belt.
“And it will be the same again on Saturday.”
De Laet, Leon Barnett, Naughton and Fox were among those with the full 90 minutes to their name as Lambert went into battle with Russell Martin at his preferred right-back berth and the on-loan Spurs defender switching across to the left. In midfield, Bradley Johnson and Elliott Bennett offered the left and right tips to the diamond; skipper Grant Holt partnered Steve Morison up front.
By the end, Aaron Wilbraham and Simeon Jackson offered the attacking threat; Naughton was on his more natural right as Marc Tierney dropped in at left-back while Pilkington found himself a new home on the left-side of midfield as Johnson disappeared on the 71 minute mark.
The two notable absentees were Andrews Crofts and Chrissy Martin, both of whom picked up knocks in the Coventry clash.
“Crofty [Crofts] has an ankle knock from the Coventry game and Chris [Martin] has a little problem with his hamstring – so we’ll have to see how they are,” said Lambert, already likely to be without the services of both big Elliott Ward and striker James Vaughan for the opening day of the new season.
The good news was a first appearance for former Huddersfield star Pilkington who has been sidelined since March with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. It is the latter that has taken the while to heal, but he is now all-but ready to rumble.
“I thought he [Pilkington] actually lifted the game when he came on,” said the City chief, with his new recruit offering one, ghosting run that looked the Premiership part. He also has a decent frame to him and, seemingly, the work ethic everyone requires to keep in Lambert’s good books.
“I thought he looked very good when he came on and it’s a big bonus for us to have him back.
“And, to be fair to him, he’s worked really hard with the fitness lads here and I can’t rush him back after the injury that he had, but he’s doing very, very well at the minute.”
What was very obvious again tonight is the fact that Norwich won’t be caught short of pace. Naughton has it in spades – as well as a fine sense of timing to his tackle. Likewise, de Laet who was on hand to nod home a Holt knock-back from a deep Fox free-kick.
“He’s very, very quick Ritchie but people have got to remember he’s only young – we’ll just have to see how he does come the season.”
Norwich now have just the one, dress rehearsal left with the home clash with Parma this Saturday. A week later and it’s game on – it all gets very, very real.
“We’ll get Saturday out of the way and then that’s us in it for real,” said the Canary chief, with just that Parma game to come before all eyes turn to the Latics clash.
Real’s leveller just before the break suggests that the Canaries still have work to do corner-wise; there was a nasty, miscued punch from keeper John Ruddy at the near post before the ball was swept home at the far stick.
On the positive side, Naughton can deliver a cross and almost enabled Holt to nick an opener with little more than 60 seconds on the clock, while Fox kept the ball moving nicely all night.
Against a continental side whose natural game is to stand off and let people play, the one-time Manchester United wannabe set the tempo of the game; mixing his passes as he went. Whether a Stoke City would allow him such freedom is another matter.
For the Potters, expect Lambert to call on the more robust services of Bradley Johnson who looks more than able to mix it if the occasion demands.
In a largely chance-less second period – interrupted for 15 minutes by a floodlight failure linked to the lightning storm – Simeon Jackson came closest to nicking a late winner off another excellent Naughton cross. It took a fine stop from the Spanish keeper to thwart a tidy, downward header from the Canadian.