Thursday, December 27, 2012
After eight, there was only a wafer-thin margin of victory for Chelsea at Carrow Road yesterday – but it was quality rather than quantity that ended Norwich City’s run of five straight Premier League home wins.
Spain international Juan Mata’s superb 38th-minute goal was out of keeping with much of what came before and afterwards in a Boxing Day contest that never really scaled the heights in front of another Carrow Road full house.
London’s top side, fresh from their eight-goal thrashing of Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge, did not enjoy anything like the same space and time against the determined Canaries but they did just enough to get their noses in front – and seldom did they appear likely to surrender the lead given them by Mata’s 13th goal of the season.
The decisive moment came when Victor Moses and Brazilian youngster Oscar worked the ball from the left flank to Mata on the edge of the City penalty area and, despite being hemmed in by four yellow shirts, he found the space required to curl a delightful left-foot shot just past the fingertips of goalkeeper Mark Bunn.
A second half played throughout in sweeping rain produced a smattering of half-chances at both ends, but Chris Hughton’s team failed to seriously inconvenience goalkeeper Petr Cech as they drew a blank for the first time in nine league and cup games – and were left to reflect on the second successive defeat of a fiendishly tough Christmas programme.
City nevertheless reach the halfway stage of the season on a healthy 25 points, and with the bottom three sides continuing to struggle, there is certainly no reason to look over their shoulders. However, with the visit of reigning champions Manchester City and a New Year’s Day trip to West Ham next on the agenda, they may have cause to be grateful for the 10-point cushion they have given themselves over the mid-term relegation candidates.
Where City had made the most of that one vital chance to inflict defeats on Arsenal and Manchester United as part of their impressive unbeaten 10-match run, they were unable yesterday to find that moment of magic required to complete a notable hat-trick of Premier League scalps.
They began brightly enough and both Robert Snodgrass and Russell Martin had powerful shots blocked in the early stages, while the more erratic shooting of David Luiz – in contrast to other aspects of his assured performance in midfield – provided a few comedy moments at the other end.
But Chelsea began to step up the pace midway through the opening half and only an important challenge by Michael Turner stopped Ashley Cole cashing in on a Luiz pass, before Mata struck the side netting from another Luiz assist when he might have done better with his other foot.
Sébastien Bassong cut out a cross from Moses at the near post as the visitors began to get more of a grip on proceedings, and sure enough they went ahead on 38 minutes when Mata struck.
City, with Snodgrass still prominent, tried to respond and in the final minute of the half, he had a shot charged down by Branislav Ivanovic after Grant Holt had knocked on Bunn’s long kick forward.
A corner from Oscar soon after the restart posed problems for City as Moses flicked it on and Bunn had to be alert to save at the near post.
Bunn then saved again from Moses, from a tight angle, after a cross from Ivanovic was allowed to slip across the six-yard box.
As City hit back, Gary Cahill cut out a cross from Snodgrass at full stretch and a neat move ended with Holt firing wide from Wes Hoolahan’s pass, but he had already been flagged offside.
Another Hoolahan-inspired break ended with Anthony Pilkington squeezing in a shot that lacked the power to trouble Cech.
Moses missed a decent chance to stretch Chelsea’s lead midway through the second half when he neatly brought down a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta but shot wide.
Chelsea made their first change on 73 minutes when the limping John Obi Mikel made way for veteran midfielder Frank Lampard, whose future at Stamford Bridge remains far from clear, the England man taking over the captain’s armband from goalkeeper Cech.
City’s own changes came late once again – probably too late to make any real difference – and instead it was almost 2-0 as Bunn saved from Chelsea substitute Eden Hazard three minutes from time after Bassong had given the ball away to Lampard.
There was nearly a late twist and a valuable point for the Canaries in stoppage time when first Cole’s clearance flew dangerously close to his own goal, then Bassong’s downward header from the resulting corner by Snodgrass corner bounced agonisingly off target.
But this was Juan of those days when City were not able to thumb their noses at one the big guns.