CHANDLER, NÜRNBERG DOWN DUTCH CHAMPS
Timothy Chandler was in FC Nürnberg's starting lineup in their first real test of the pre-season, playing just over 70 minutes as they soundly defeated Dutch Eredivisie champions Ajax Amsterdam.
With two weeks remaining before their first competitive action in the German Cup and the first game of the 2011-12 Bundesliga campaign awaiting one week thereafter, Nürnberg put themselves to the test by welcoming reigning Dutch champions Ajax to their Frankenstadion home.
If there were any lingering concerns as to whether Chandler's much-publicized omission from the Gold Cup roster would truly have the promised effect on his club standing, they were put to rest as his inclusion in Dieter Hecking's full-strength lineup and his subsequent solid performance over 70 minutes to keep the vaunted Ajax attack off the scoreboard showed that he has almost certainly locked down the team's starting right back position.
A tentative opening few minutes quickly gave way to a period of attractive open play from both teams throughout much of the first half-hour.
In the eighth minute, a deflected pass landed directly in the path of Nürnberg's Christian Eigler just outside the left edge of the six-yard box, however his subsequent shot was wide of the target.
In the immediate follow-up by Ajax, a breakaway on the right side saw Serbian forward Miralern Sulejmani rush forward into the area and into position for a good shot on-target which Raphael Schäfer successfully blocked out to his defenders.
A long ball hit from Nürnberg's midfield found Robert Mak on the right edge of the Ajax area, where he struck it across the face of goal, passing surprisingly close to both the upper far corner of Maarten Stekelenburg's on the one side, and the onrushing Christian Eigler on the other.
Ajax lost one of their main attacking orchestrators just past the quarter-hour, after the young #10 Siem De Jong complained of a slight knock to his coach along the sideline, and was replaced with South African Thulani Serero as a precaution.
The Dutch team displayed a superior movement of the ball in the early going as would be expected by a team of their caliber, however Nürnberg did well to hold their own with a tight defense while keeping their visitors somewhat hesitant to push all forward thanks to their regular quick breaks going the other way.
An Ajax corner in the 28th minute by former FC Twente star Theo Janssen was hit low to the edge of the six-yard box in great position for Lorenzo Ebecilio to lunge for a shot that would have likely beaten Schäfer were it not first blocked out by the defense.
Three minutes later, Chandler created his own chance, first speeding up the right side in his typical fashion, however finishing his run by working inwards to the edge of the area then cutting left and taking an 18-yard shot which was blocked before it could reach Stekelenburg.
The Dutch national team keeper was, however called into action one minute later when Nürnberg new arrival Alexander Esswein broke into the left side of the area, cut in behind his defender to gain a clear shot on goal, which Stekelenburg had to knock out for a corner.
The remainder of the half saw the Ajax defense do a better job of keeping Nürnberg out of any truly dangerous positions, forcing them into either long shots from distance or probing crosses goalward which were easily dealt with.
The tame ending minutes of the first half gave way to a quick exchange of opportunities by the teams just after the break.
Two minutes after the restart, Mak recovered an Ajax turnover in the middle of their attacking half, and slipped the ball right to Markus Feulner whose shot bounced off the woodwork for Nürnberg's best chance up to that point in the game.
Then in the 50th minute, Janssen received a pass which gave him enough space to get a shot off from dead center at the edge of the area under only slight pressure from the marking central defenders, but will regret firing his shot well over the target to waste the golden opportunity.
Much to the delight of the home crowd, Nürnberg took the lead in the 61st minute, as a corner on the left side was taken short by Didavi to the Slovakian international Mak, whose shot from the left edge of the 18-yard box flew beyond the fingertips of the leaping Stekelenburg and just inside the upper right corner for a spectacular opener.
The goal immediately preceded mass substitution of players by both teams, with Nürnberg head coach Dieter Hecking replacing five of his starters and Ajax frontman Frank de Boer putting four new faces on the field.
Chandler, who remained on the field for the time being, again showed his aggressiveness on the right in the 68th minute when he cut in hard towards the middle of the field following a run on the right and blasted a powerful 25-yard bullet that sailed several yards too high.
A precision pass from the Ajax backfield to the edge of Nürnberg's area was almost exactly a bullseye for the onrushing Janssen to have a good chance give his team a 70th-minute equalizer, however Schäfer correctly rushed off his line well enough in advance to punch it well clear at the last second, securing the lead.
Another round of substitutions saw Chandler finally leave the field along with the remainder of Nürnberg's outfield starters in the 72nd minute, and an exodus of most of Ajax's remaining starters four minutes later dropped the overall intensity and quality of play, although not without some passing moments of excitement.
Ajax substitute Jody Lukoki was slipped forward on the right side towards the endline and cut the ball back to Sulejmani in the middle of the area, and his tricky one-timed shot back towards the upper right corner was surprisingly close to being an 80th minute equalizer.
They came close again just moments later thanks to Danish youth star Christian Eriksen, who worked his way to the endline and hit a low pass back to the penalty spot, where Mats Rits made contact as he fell, but put it over the net.
Despite the Dutch pressure, Nürnberg finally added their second goal of the game with eight minutes left, as Tomas Pekhart broke forward and slipped the ball to the right side, where Markus Mendler struck a low shot which rolled beyond Stekelenburg's reach and just inside the far post.
Following the game, Chandler was pleased with the winning result, particularly against a team of such pedigree as Ajax, however knows the team will still need to critique their own play afterwards to look for improvements.
"We have a good young team, I think a good picture of that could be seen today," he analyzed. "Of course there were quite a few things that we did well today and it was great to win as a result, especially against the Dutch champions. However we'll need a little bit of reflection time now to see what we still need to do better for the new season."
With his first full season in the top flight ahead of him, he is hoping the season will push him to continue improving the nuances of his own game as the team tries to defy the expectations of a difficult season which many experts in the German media have placed upon them.
"I want to continue push myself to play at the top level I can," he continued. "For Nürnberg, many people are saying that we will have to fight against being relegated, but I think we have the ability to do as well as we did last season."
The loss of several important players during the off-season along with a number of new additions has put the team in the position of finding and developing their strongest points while looking to locate and eliminate any potentially detrimental pitfalls. Despite the changes, Chandler believes that a continued unity amongst the new players and team veterans will help to carry their success into the upcoming season.
"The team is coming well together even with the new players, everybody is playing for each other, and I believe we're going to have a solid team this year," he concluded.
Nürnberg still have two more weeks of preparation including a weeklong training camp in Austria along with friendly matches against Czech team Slovan Liberec and Spaniards Racing Sandander before their first competitive game of the season on July 30, against Arminia Bielefeld in the German Cup.
The team's 2011-12 Bundesliga season will begin one week later, as they travel to freshly-promoted Hertha Berlin on Saturday, August 6.