First impressions: Norwich City 2 Watford 3
The recent success of sides promoted to the Championship must seem like both a blessing and a curse to Norwich City. While expectations are high due to the standards set by Swansea and Leicester, the two clubs that won League One prior to the Canaries’ triumph, this is not just a burden.
Top-half finishes achieved by those sides must give Paul Lambert’s men real confidence that they can build on last year’s winning mentality. Around 27,000 packed into Carrow Road, hoping to see a better opening day’s work than last season offered.
In contrast, little is expected of Malky Mackay’s Watford this season. You can win things with kids, of course. Nevertheless, winning enough games to stay clear of relegation trouble was expected to be the extent of the Hornets’ ambitions this season.
Mackay’s youngsters may not be as well-known as most of their opponents over the coming months but, as long they continue to show the same fearlessness and commitment to attack that they demonstrated at Carrow Road, the kids will be alright.
The Championship’s reputation as being entirely unpredictable was in danger of becoming an overused cliche prior to the opening exchanges of the first game. And those opening exchanges offered little in the way of clues as to what was about to happen.
Both sides started in enterprising fashion with Chris Martin displaying neat touches for the home side and the visitors seeking to break quickly using the pace of Marvin Sordell. Norwich will score goals in this division through their lively frontmen and creative midfielders, but a top six tilt will be reliant on far better defending than they managed here.
There were two opposing diamond formations in evidence, but Norwich’s incarnation merely looked promising whereas, after a slightly slow start, Watford began to appear devastating. The movement of their front two, Sordell lining up alongside last season’s top goalscorer Danny Graham, was too much for their hosts, particularly in the old inside-forward channels.
Individual errors allowed the first goal to be struck decisively at the near post by John Eustace, with sluggish defensive reaction to a short corner particularly culpable. Lambert furiously stalked the touchline in front of the home dugout. The inventive midfield play of Wes Hoolahan, among others, is all well and good but basic errors are punished more readily in the second tier than they would have been last season.
Watford made the second goal look simple, Sordell returning a pass to Graham who ran clear of Norwich defender Michael Nelson to fire past John Ruddy in the home side’s goal. In reality, it was a perfectly executed strike from a fine move that would not have looked out of place in any league in the world.
Six minutes into the second half, Norwich finally answered with a goal every bit as good. The probing Hoolahan came good with a clever run and, after Simeon Jackson backheeled his pass across the edge of the box, the onrushing Andrew Crofts fired the ball past Scott Loach.
The visitors responded firstly by steadying the ship and then by bringing off Will Buckley and the impressive Sordell, introducing in their places Ross Jenkins and new signing Troy Deeney. Fresh faces provided Mackay’s men with impetus and they looked to have regained control of the game after a shaky start to the second half.
With less than ten minutes remaining, Graham made the game safe. The Watford striker is not the quickest, not the strongest and not the most talented forward in the league but his movement off the ball is first class and he loves to pick the ball up in deep positions and drive towards goal.
Graham assumed possession around forty yards from goal twice in the space of three late minutes. On the first occasion, he made space for a side-footed finish that snuck into the far corner via a deflection. On the second, he ran a little wide and could not produce a hat-trick.
Norwich struck a late second consolation through centre-back Nelson after Chris Martin dummied a cross from the right but they failed to force an equaliser. The travelling supporters rejoiced, many neutrals will re-assess and Norwich must regroup.
The Canaries have got previous that will stand them in good stead where opening day setbacks are concerned. As for Watford… time to print out that league table…