Photo Gallery: Norwich City’s spirit and character bridges Chelsea’s wealth gap
Norwich City 0, Chelsea 0: Norwich City's rapid progress offers tangible proof that finance is not the sole factor to footballing meritocracy in the Premier League.
If it were, then Paul Lambert's collective had no right to be anywhere near the same patch of grass as Chelsea's expensively-recruited squad; let alone trading blows as an equal well worth the honourable draw. A first clean sheet of the campaign should finally expose the myth that Norwich's defence is too porous, too vulnerable to keep a shut-out.
For the achievement to come against a forward line furnished by Roman Abramovich's personal wealth was the sweetest of ironies. True, to go head-to-head with the likes of Chelsea and those other serial contenders for top honours in the domestic and European game over the course of a season needs hard currency to fund obscene wage bills and bloated forays into the market.
But the same must surely be true when the biggest hitters encounter the rest on any given weekend; particularly the impressionable new boys. Lambert's men had to defend with bravery and attack with sporadic menace to keep Chelsea at bay. But repel the invaders they did. John Ruddy's excellence was matched by the combined talents of Zak Whitbread and Dani Ayala in front of the big man. Two players deemed not quite ready to make the grade at Liverpool – yet good enough here to subdue one of Anfield's modern-day icons before his defection south.
Fernando Torres of old would have been the decisive actor in this drama. The one-time darling of the Kop is now reviled on Merseyside for his disloyalty. Torres roams these days like a man carrying the burden of that painful break-up. Weighed down by a price tag not of his making and the dawning realisation Andre Villas-Boas' patience will eventually wear thin.
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The Spaniard's profligacy at Carrow Road will not have been mourned by the majority. But there is something inherently tragic in watching a man who at the peak of his powers was a blur of rapier movement and ruthless thrusts poking wide from barely eight yards with only a stranded keeper to beat.
Torres may well recapture his former glories. The gathering weight of evidence for the prosecution offered by each passing fruitless shift in front of goal suggests different. His accelerated decline is now worryingly mirrored by the club he pledges allegiance to. Villas-Boas was recruited as a young, modernising force. The Portuguese has inherited an ageing squad. Three were still on duty from Chelsea's last visit to Carrow Road when Jose Mourinho's champions-elect dismissively brushed aside the Canaries. The contrast could not be more marked.
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Revolution not evolution is the medicine required on the evidence of both league games against Norwich and the circumstantial statistics contained in the league table. Nevertheless, spared comparison against the less searching light of Mourinho's era, Chelsea still present a formidable obstacle.
Juan Mata is one of the best imports of the season; a true inheritor of Gianfranco Zola's crown. The former Valencia midfielder is a superb technician groomed in the finest Spanish finishing school. Much of Chelsea's best work in Norfolk found Mata at its source.
Villas-Boas also possesses a depth to his squad the envy of many. England international Gary Cahill had to content himself with a seat in the stand after the completion of his protracted transfer. Frank Lampard's early injury exit was a blow for Cahill's international colleague; an opportunity for Florent Malouda. Another high class craftsman from the continent.
Lambert puts his faith in domestic-based talent; they have yet to let him down. Norwich's starting line-up had a strength to its collective spine that hints at one of the positive characteristics associated with the British game. Ruddy has had to suffer the personal torments that every keeper experiences during the course of a season, but City's number one was a rock again.
For pure shot-stopping ability, Ruddy is the equal of all his Premier League contemporaries. Whitbread exudes a similarly calm assurance. The Scouser looks the perfect foil for the raw, fresh-faced Ayala. Norwich's rise through the leagues has been matched and raised by the young Spaniard. Still only 21, he arrived with less than 30 senior appearances behind him in his entire professional career; barely a few hundred minutes in the top flight at Liverpool.
Injury in his first Norwich start in that instantly forgettable Carling Cup exit to MK Dons made the acclimatisation process that much more difficult. Ayala, by his own honest admission, has made mistakes since Lambert promoted him to the ranks before Christmas.
But the cultured centre back has undoubted potential. Like Norwich. Ayala is also clearly a work in progress. Like Norwich.
Bradley Johnson is the hard edge to the artisans around him in the centre of the park; David Fox against the Blues, flanked by the creative talents of Anthony Pilkington – masterful at times against one of the best exponents of his craft in Ashley Cole – and Andrew Surman. Wes Hoolahan sat in reserve and a fresh potential addition in the shape of Leeds captain Jonny Howson watched from the stands.
Grant Holt and Steve Morison have already attracted plenty of column inches. Goals may have been unusually absent from the duo's latest outing in tandem, but John Terry and David Luiz were pummelled with surgical precision at times.
Norwich advanced following Chelsea's early measured forays. Russell Martin surged into enemy territory before shovelling onto Morison who fed Pilkington and was on hand when Petr Cech spilled, but the industrious Ramires had tracked back to sense the danger.
Morison then swivelled inside Chelsea's half before cushioning a pass into Holt's path who body-swerved Luiz but cracked a left footer a couple of yards past Cech's post. Mata hooked behind at the opposite end, but Norwich carried the greater menace on the counter. Holt intelligently dropped deep to drift a diagonal pass into his strike partner, who lashed into Cech's side netting.
City were playing with purpose –attacking dimensions allied to their defensive discipline. Tottenham and Arsenal had suffocated, dominated territory and possession on their respective visits to Carrow Road.
This Chelsea vintage rely as much on muscle in midfield as masterful movement. Raul Meireles and Ramires do not have the poise and guile of an Aaron Ramsey or a Gareth Bale. Lampard's last meaningful act was a wonderful visionary pass threaded to Ramires, who in turn serviced Torres.
The �50m striker did everything right. The initial movement to lose his marker, the dip inside to turn Whitbread and the instant flick with the outside of his right foot destined for the bottom corner before Ruddy's fingertips intervened. Such is life for Fernando right now. There was little in the way of mitigation you could offer when he poked wide on the hour mark. Ayala threw himself in front of his compatriot, but Torres in his pomp would have already been wheeling away in triumph before gravity pulled Ayala back to earth.
Villas-Boas' reaction was telling. The Chelsea chief bore the anguished expression of a man who had just learned Roman was putting his cheque book away for good.
Torres' fate in this game may have been sealed in that moment. Romelu Lukaku emerged from the confines of the visiting dugout to warm up. Yet the Portuguese's side were in the ascendancy; the ball increasingly attracted to Mata with almost magnetic force.
The little general sneaked blindside of Martin but Ruddy was his equal again to claw away the low, angled drive. Meireles lashed over, followed by Ramires who tested the City keeper with a meaty hit. Chelsea's midfield enforcers had abandoned their station. Mata clipped the base of Ruddy's near post before Cole's long ranger arced wide.
It was gradual pressure rather than the incessant waves Norwich had to repel at Anfield earlier this season against another of the Premier League's traditional heavyweights.
Then, as now, Ruddy's defiance and that of the men in front of him earned another priceless point. Lambert reiterated after the final whistle the undoubted gulf remains vast. Norwich continue to bridge it.