Norwich City friendly with Ajax lit up by two brilliant strikes
If the object of the exercise was to help Chris Hughton get to know his Norwich City players a little bit more, then Dutch maestros Ajax were willing participants in this Carrow Road experiment.
Frank De Boer's Champions League qualifiers tested the Canaries' defensive shape and discipline for sustained periods on Hughton's big night. The hosts passed the test and had the temerity to open the scoring – courtesy of Anthony Pilkington's first-half free kick.
Ajax midfielder Lasse Schone called and then raised Pilkington with a long-range smack on the half-hour mark that left John Ruddy grasping at fresh air. The Dutch always looked the likeliest to grab a winner, but City's defensive resolve after the break frustrated the visitors.
Russell Martin was the only starter retained from the weekend friendly win at Peterborough as Hughton looked to again spread the fitness workload. Skipper Grant Holt partnered James Vaughan in attack after the duo had combined to potent effect at London Road with Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson paired in central midfield. Robert Snodgrass was included on the substitutes' bench following his recent Elland Road switch, but fellow new arrival Michael Turner had to settle for a watching brief. Steven Whittaker (ankle) and David Fox (knee) were again absent, with no place in the squad either for Korey Smith.
De Boer opted to include highly-rated Danish export Christian Eriksen. The 20-year-old wasted little time in showcasing his prodigious talent with a cute flick that cannoned against the top of Ruddy's bar inside the opening two minutes after Jody Lukoki had breezed past Marc Tierney.
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Vaughan admonished Pilkington for delaying his intended pass with the striker looking to continue his rich vein of early pre-season goalscoring form with a penetrative burst in behind.
Joel Veltman was forced to take matters into his own hands with the razor-sharp frontman poised to burst onto Holt's flick 20 yards out. Referee Jones adopted a lenient tone entirely in keeping with the friendly fayre – until Pilkington stepped up to punish the offender with a sublime lift that left Ajax's keeper Jasper Cillessen motionless.
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Eriksen was at the hub of the visitors' best work, with the Dutchmen's predictably smooth skills forcing Hughton's men to dig in for prolonged spells. Lukoki appeared the primary out-ball for De Boer's side, but Vaughan remained the brightest attacking spark. One turn and pivot ended with Gregory van der Wiel hauling the 24-year-old to the deck. Pilkington again directed operations from wide on the left, but his intended delivery drifted beyond Ryan Bennett's far-post run. Eriksen's impressive movement caused City major problems in the 21st minute, only for a reprieve to come in the shape of a heavy first touch with Ruddy left exposed.
City looked comfortable despite increasingly being starved of the ball, but Schone's leveller for the classy visitors underlined their fabled pedigree – a wonderful long-range strike that veered away from Ruddy's despairing full-length dive.
Hughton introduced Wes Hoolahan for Vaughan at the interval, with the Irishman operating in a deeper lying role off Holt. The influential Eriksen was also hooked by De Boer after dictating the play for the majority of the opening period.
Johnson bravely threw himself in the way of Ruben Ligeon's piledriver from another dangerous probe down Norwich's right. Elliott Ward's athleticism topped that with Thulani Serero's goalbound shot set to test Ruddy from 16 yards as Ajax carried on where they had left off prior to the break. The Dutch were in danger of lapsing into exhibition mode – such was their dominance of both territory and the ball following the restart.
Bennett's entry for the best defensive clearance from the hosts saw the England U21 defender race around on the cover to desperately hook away Lukoki's lift over Ruddy.
The Canaries needed an inspirational spark and Snodgrass' introduction for the final quarter certainly had the desired effect on the terraces – Andrew Surman and Andrew Crofts joining the Scot with Hughton keen to survey a fresh midfield mix.
• Norwich City: Ruddy, R Martin (Barnett 86), Ward (Ayala 86), R Bennett, Tierney (Lappin 86), E Bennett (Snodgrass 70), Howson (Crofts 70), Johnson, Pilkington (Surman 70), Holt (Morison 78), Vaughan (Hoolahan 45). Subs (not used): Rudd, Jackson, C Martin. Goal: Pilkington (7).
• Ajax: Cillessen, van der Wiel (Anita 45, De Jong 71), Eriksen (Ligeon 45), Ebecilio, Klaasen, Schone, Serero, Koppers, Lukoki, Veltman, Denswil. Subs (not used): Vermeer, Alderwiereld, Ozbiliz, van Rhijin. Goal: Schone (30).
• Referee: Mike Jones (Chester).
• Attendance: 16,708