Monkeys are irresistible creatures, aren’t they? Mischievous. Cute. Entertaining. They are one of nature’s entertainers. Unless you have one on your back. Then they are an annoyance. Draining. Morale sapping.
It came as something of a relief when Norwich City took the opportunity against Huddersfield to throw off the one it’s been grappling with since February.
A workmanlike performance against a backdrop of old mills and historic industry in West Yorkshire didn’t set pulses racing, but there was widespread relief across the Canary Nation the 12-match losing streak was over – and that pesky primate was given the heave-ho.
The task is to now launch an unbeaten run, with the emphasis on winning, in front of a thousand eager City fans returning to the Rud. It’ll be the first time supporters have parked their backsides in the plastic seats since the dearly departed Jamal Lewis struck an arrow of a shot diagonally across Kasper Schmeichel and into the net to beat Leicester City on 28th February.
While that pre-pandemic memory seems like years ago, having Alex Neil as Canaries manager feels like it belongs to a different lifetime. He helped us into the top-flight with victory at Wembley and there is seemingly no ill feeling between the Scot and Delia despite his sacking, so his returns to Carrow Road bring no fanfare, friction or fireworks.
However, his North End side do have the capability to play the role of unpopular party pooper at our small-scale, socially distant, Covid-secure ‘welcome home’ bash.
A last-minute 2-1 win for Preston over the club formerly known as Frank Lampard’s Derby County in the Carabao Cup earlier this week followed a frustrating 1-0 home defeat to Swansea on the opening day.
While the loss to the Swans didn’t register on the footballing Richter scale, it was notable for being a bit of a smash and grab – the Welsh side scored with its only shot on target. Stats and reports suggest PNE outfought and out passed Steve Cooper’s side, created the most opportunities and held the majority of the possession.
With Tom Barkhuizen up top and the highly rated Daniel Johnson in midfield, the Lancastrians shouldn’t really be quite as toothless as they are – the former’s goal against Derby shows just how powerful and accurate his shooting can be. However, not getting the goals the team deserves is a recurring issue under Neil’s management.
Johnson scored 12 goals last season but may not feature against City – rumours of a move to Glasgow Rangers has seen him seemingly fall out of favour with wee Alec. And by all accounts this has led to the side becoming unsettled and unbalanced in terms of team shape. While it doesn’t lack anything in terms of industry and effort, Neil’s side often falls short when it comes to breaking down a well-organised or obdurate defensive line.
The clash with North End is going to be a step up in terms of difficultly from the test Huddersfield offered. The similarity is that it will be another workout from a physical, organised and motivated unit – but certainly one that doesn’t offer the firepower City succumbed to in the Premier League on a regular basis.
On last Saturday’s viewing, Daniel Farke’s 2020/21 line-up have the potential to do well this season. There certainly needs to be improvement on what was served up at the John Smith’s stadium, but there were encouraging signs in a team display that was solid – but certainly not spectacular.
Tim Krul, bar one full stretch dive to his right in the second half from a Josh Koroma shot, didn’t have to be called into action. In front of him, Ben Godfrey showed that his pace will intimidate Championship strikers – as well as cover the errors of his teammates. Utterly essential when you feel that Christoph Zimmerman isn’t quite back to his 2018/19 best and might have a number of errors in his locker.
The standout for me in the backline was Xavi Quintilla. Replacing Lewis isn’t going to be easy and he will find the Championship relentless and incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally. Yet there was nothing to say the Spaniard will not be able to grow into the left-back slot and make it his own. I’m overjoyed to see a City player clear the first man with a corner again – his set-pieces look to be top drawer and I hope to see the rare, lesser-spotted, header from a corner kick returning to roost regularly at Carrow Road.
You can’t buy chemistry between players – it either happens or it doesn’t. There were signs Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean could work together in the centre of the pitch, but I will need to be convinced they can work in tandem over a full season.
While Spurs’ captain of the future, as described by Jose Mourinho, turned in a performance that saw him grow in stature as the game progressed, Kenny showed a few neat flashes of what he can do. That partnership will need to take another step forward and show greater control this weekend if they’re going to stand-out as the season’s first-choice midfield pairing.
The most advanced three didn’t exude confidence and swagger from kick-off, but they showed enough to suggest they will fire soon. The spark could well be the return of Emi Buendia this weekend – but the fact his team won a game without him for the first time shows progress is being made.
There were moans and groans on social media about Teemu Pukki’s performance – though quite why that was the case, I’ve got no idea. Like many of his colleagues, he has been off his 2018/19 pace. He’s a confidence player and there was enough in his movement and pace to suggest it’s returning.
The Finn’s anticipation of Richard Stearman’s back pass, break into the box, skill to dump another defender on his backside, and square the ball for Adam Idah to pulverise the winner showed we’re all closer to receiving invites to another Pukki Party soon.
With Teemu rediscovering his mojo, Buendia back, Skippy bouncing across midfield, Godfrey in beast mode, and the fans returning, let’s hope one thing stays away from Carrow Road on Saturday – that meddlesome monkey.
I’m backing City to build on their opening day win and stop it from quickly hopping on the team’s back again.