Premier League’s natural order restored as Norwich City come up short against Chelsea
Even in defeat this was a day when Norwich City should really cherish their Premier League status.
It took a Spanish World Cup winner to eclipse the Canaries as part of a Chelsea outfit that could bench one of England's finest modern-day players in Frank Lampard and a young Belgian prot�g� in Eden Hazard who cost telephone numbers to entice to Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea's win was a painful demonstration of the natural order of things. A reminder of just how wide the gulf is in terms of financial muscle and sheer star quality, between those from the Premier League's elite who set out each season aiming to conquer Europe, in tandem with domestic dominance, and the rest who fight for survival.
Norwich defensively were as sound as they had been for the majority of a club record 10-match unbeaten Premier League run which grows in status and cache with every fresh set-back. City's attacking endeavours perhaps lacked the fizz of recent times, but in reality it was an afternoon when Rafa Benitez's 'united nations' re-asserted the law of the Premier League jungle.
Norwich, under both Chris Hughton and his predecessor, can never be accused of deference, or defeatism, but there will be occasions during the course of an arduous campaign when City's players simply are unable to bridge the unequal divide.
Arsenal and Manchester United both succumbed to the Canaries' high tempo counter-attacking strategy, but Chelsea were every bit as energetic and committed in their readiness to press Norwich far away from Petr Cech's goal. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz had the tenacity and the bite to engage Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey in that key central battleground.
Chelsea also possessed the best creative force on the pitch in Juan Mata. The Spaniard's individual brilliance was the tangible difference in a contest the visitors' controlled for the majority. City roused themselves early in the second period, and during a final stoppage time onslaught, but that was the sum total of the Canaries' creative efforts.
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Fit-again home captain Grant Holt will rarely have felt quite so isolated in his lone front-running role. Chelsea claimed the ball within seconds of the kick-off and refused to give it back for long spells; buoyed no doubt by the surge in confidence from demolishing a sorry Aston Villa side 8-0 at the weekend.
Mata escaped Johnson's close attentions momentarily before the City midfielder recovered his composure in a skirmish that, even so early in the piece, looked pivotal to the overall outcome. One of Benitez's first major calls as interim boss appears to have been his decision to grant his compatriot the licence to exert a greater influence from central areas.
Wes Hoolahan's first incursion at the opposite end ended with Tettey's wild miscue that spiralled towards the massed ranks of away supporters. The intent from Hughton's side was admirable; sit back and dig in and in all probability Chelsea's quality would tip the balance in their favour.
Oscar's inadvertent flick back towards his own goal forced a first Norwich corner. Robert Snodgrass' deep delivery towards Michael Turner hinted at a plan to test Chelsea's aerial vulnerability, but Gary Cahill prevailed.
Holt and Hoolahan combined to smother Luiz in midfield, a man bestowed with natural footballing gifts but prone to routine lapses that prove so costly operating in the Blues' backline, only for Johnson's intended lift in behind Cesar Azpilicueta to race out of play. Luiz's rising strike smashed into the electronic scoreboard high above Mark Bunn's goal before Turner ensured the Brazilian got no closer minutes later when City's counter-attacking ambition produced unwanted consequences when Javier Garrido was stranded further upfield.
The parallels with those landmark wins over Arsenal and United were visibly evident with each passing minute. City refused to be enticed out of their disciplined defensive shape as Chelsea were afforded the luxury of time and space on half-way to try and switch the point of their attacks.
Luiz finally injected some urgency with a pass Mata poked wide from close range, but Chelsea's forays into Bunn's penalty area were sporadic.
Mikel rifled over from 18 yards, but again the source of Chelsea's opening was a Norwich mistake – Garrido's inside pass easily read by Luiz in central midfield, who in turn fed Mata lurking in the space vacated by his compatriot.
Victor Moses barrelled his way beyond Russell Martin tight to the opposite touchline, but Turner remained vigilant at the concession of a corner – Mata eventually finding himself crowded out on the edge of the Canaries' penalty area. The Spaniard managed to extricate himself from a similarly suffocating scenario to fire Chelsea ahead in the 38th minute with a left-footer through a posse of home defenders that nestled just inside Bunn's far post.
Johnson's glancing near post header from Snodgrass' corner was a positive riposte from Hughton's men, but Chelsea's passing patterns in the final moments of the half were almost dismissive of Norwich's perceived threat. Bunn's reflexes saved City slipping further behind on the restart, when he paddled Moses' near post touch from Oscar's whipped corner. The same duel brought the same outcome when Mata rolled in Azpilicueta down the right flank to drift a low cross towards the waiting Moses, but Bunn gathered on his line at the second attempt.
The assured Cahill prevented Snodgrass' inswinging cross reaching Holt before the skipper was flagged offside after racing onto Hoolahan's pass. Greater attacking ambition from Hughton's men brought a muted home crowd to life, but it was Chelsea who remained the most likely to score a second. Mata's cheeky free-kick failed to catch out Bunn before Moses smashed wide with just the home keeper to beat after Martin had misjudged the flight of Azpilicueta's cross.
Anthony Pilkington drove into Chelsea's area after Hoolahan and Holt led the breakout, only for his scuffed right footer to dribble through to a largely redundant Cech. Snodgrass then tumbled inside the Blues' penalty box after bursting between Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic, but the Scot could have few complaints when referee Moss opted to wave play on. The late introductions of both Hazard and Lampard served to imbue Chelsea's efforts with added attacking impetus. Bunn bravely raced from his line to block the Belgian, following Lampard's refusal to give up on a lost cause which had forced Sebastien Bassong into a rare aberration. City's centre-back has been a defiant presence for the Canaries in recent months. Fearless in defence and proactive in the opposition box. And it was the Cameroonian international's instincts which could have salvaged a point when he rose in stoppage time to head up and over Cech's bar.