[James wrote this piece prior to last night’s news – Ed]
The players formed up in the centre circle. The crowd fell silent and as the trumpeter sounded the last post, I cannot have been the only Canary fan wondering if this would indeed be the last post for Daniel Farke.
Fear not. Perhaps buoyed by the way that the under-23s began their game on Friday night, the City players were straight out of the blocks, putting the pressure straight onto fellow promotees Brentford. Farke said that Norwich needed to rediscover its identity. There was evidence of this in the opening period – perhaps not up to the quick, crisp passing that characterised the romp to the title, but certainly closer than many of the insipid performances so far this term.
Brentford seemed only able to create pressure with a series of looping long throws that initially at least, asked some tricky questions of a City defence shorn of the commanding presence of Grant Hanley.
And then it happened. A unicorn! On six minutes, Pukki played the ball to Rashica. He battled down the left and played a dangerous ball towards Max Aarons who was lurking around the penalty spot. Brentford cleared the ball, but only as far as Matthias Normann who picked up the ball halfway inside the Brentford half. His powerful run took three Brentford players out of the game before he cut inside and placed a left-foot shot past the diving keeper.
With confidence visibly flowing back into the players in yellow, City began to dominate the midfield. City were happy to concede limited possession to Brentford but concentrated on closing down the channels, preventing Brentford from playing through the lines.
In defence, the pairing of Omobamidele and Gibson were keeping the much-vaunted Ivan Toney quiet. On 11 minutes, Omobamidele was beaten by an awkwardly bouncing high ball but Gibson was there to prevent Toney from getting through on goal, the Irish youngster recovering well to prevent his more experienced partner’s block from going out for a corner.
It took 16 minutes for Brentford to manage anything like a sustained period of pressure and possession and for six or seven minutes they made it very difficult for City to get the ball out of their half. When they did, it was a powerful drive out of defence by Williams, who then checked, held the ball and invited the foul that took the pressure off.
The game then ebbed and flowed, with City containing much of the Brentford threat. On 27 minutes, the Lees-Melou passed short to Normann, deep inside his own half. He produced a peach of a side-foot pass straight through the Brentford backline and into the path of Pukki.
As the Finn pulled the trigger, a tackle from behind by Goode clearly took the forward’s legs away and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Goode received a yellow for his efforts – my understanding of the rules must be lacking as I presumed it should have been a red. It seemed to take an age for the City man to step up and send the keeper the wrong way.
Only a week or so after the anniversary of that famous Olympic Stadium win, this also felt like fantasy football!
As the half wore on, both the Brentford players and crowd were becoming visibly frustrated and a smattering of boos rang out as the players left the pitch.
Thomas Frank elected to make changes, both in personnel and formation for the second half, former Canary Canos being moved across to the left. In a clear change in emphasis, Brentford began to play early long balls, trying to get in behind the City defence. Toney had pulled wider into Aarons area of responsibility and a succession of high balls targeted him effectively with the City right-back unsurprisingly struggling in the air against the Brentford man.
But it was City who had the chance to put the game beyond reach. Dowell on the right played Pukki in but his shot was dragged just wide.
Brentford were playing at a much higher tempo, taking every throw and kick very quickly in an attempt to unsettle the Canaries. It worked, Omobamidele earning a yellow for a push after getting the wrong side following just such a quick throw. Moments earlier, Brentford had the ball in the net – a quick long ball, a flick by Toney and Mbuemo finished. It shouldn’t have taken VAR to see that he was clearly offside.
Krul had already made several great saves when, on 54 minutes, Omobamidele marshalled a powerful Toney run out for a corner. From the resulting set piece, Krul made a blinding point blank save. The pressure was building and it felt like a goal was coming.
And thus it was. A swinging ball from the left. With Aarons drawn into the middle, Rico Henry was able to run in at the far post unmarked and bring Brentford back into the game.
From that moment on it was backs to the wall for City, with the defence getting ever more desperate. It took the experience of Normann to disrupt the momentum, causing two breaks in play whilst his injuries were attended to, causing inevitable anger amongst the home fans.
City made two quick changes. First, Giannoulous came on for the visibly tiring Dowell and a switch to a back 5, in an effort to counter the Brentford pressure on Max Aarons side of the pitch. Minutes later, Pukki appeared to be struggling with a leg injury and went off to be replaced by Sargent.
The American was straight into the action. Rashica was flattened by Goode but the referee played advantage as Sargent broke free on the right. He drew the foul and I was expecting Goode to see his marching orders for the second time, but the referee took no action. Lees-Melou played a vicious curling kick in which found Giannoulis. His cross seemed destined to find Sargent and the goal but for the timely intervention of a defender.
Brentford came forward again, and again. The City defending became ever more desperate as the pressure piled, but on 85 minutes, they managed to get the ball out of defence and had a short period where they passed the ball between them and retained possession. This broke the momentum for a while.
Again Brentford came forward. In the dying minutes, Rashica was replaced by Idah, who made his most telling contribution to the season so far, wisely running the ball into the corner. After seven minutes of additional time, the final whistle blew. Normann sank to his knees and the Community Stadium resounded to the sound of On the Ball City.
A victory. It matters not how, a victory nonetheless. A first-half where City finally played some football. A second-half which whilst not pretty, displayed grit and determination to get the job done. Against a top side, the result may have been different. The international break will give the players a chance to recover from the injuries that are piling up.