Chelsea resurgence continues under Guus Hiddink with 2-1 win at Norwich
NORWICH, England -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 2-1 win at Norwich to push the Blues into the top half of the table...
1. Chelsea's momentum continues with 2-1 win
It might be too late for Chelsea to achieve anything of consequence in the Premier League this season, but their fine form under Guus Hiddink continued on Tuesday as they held on to beat a scrappy Norwich 2-1 at Carrow Road.
Chelsea have yet to lose in the league under the Dutchman, but for Norwich, the defeat (combined with Sunderland's 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace) sees them slip into the bottom three, their seventh loss in the last eight league games. The last time they picked up three points was against Southampton on Jan. 2 and while they battled gamely in this match, things are looking very troubling for Alex Neil's side.
Chelsea certainly started the game with an urgency hitherto lacking from their season. They opened the scoring after just 39 seconds when Eden Hazard fed Kenedy, who found plenty of space behind Norwich right wing-back Ivo Pinto, cut inside and made himself just enough space to rifle the ball low into the bottom corner. They almost went two up a few minutes later when Hazard forgot the habit of a season and dashed down the left again, cutting back a pass just behind the arriving Bertrand Traore.
At that stage it looked like a very long night lay ahead for the hosts. After that, though, Chelsea didn't present nearly as much of a threat, probing rather than slicing through the defence. Traore fluffed one good chance when clean through with a criminally heavy touch.
Just before half-time, a moment of perceived controversy was followed by one of actual controversy. Gary Cahill chased the ball with Cameron Jerome on the right of the Chelsea defence and passed back to Thibaut Courtois, who dribbled briefly before picking it up. Referee Lee Mason waved play on and grabbed the ire of the home crowd, convinced they had been wronged -- replays showed the pass clipped Jerome's toe before it went back to the keeper, making his handling of the ball legitimate.
However, a few minutes later, Norwich had genuine cause to feel aggrieved as Chelsea doubled their lead. Diego Costa latched onto a Traore pass and clipped the ball neatly over the onrushing John Ruddy, but the Spain forward was at least a yard offside. Curiously, there were virtually no protests from the home crowd, perhaps still lightly simmering from their earlier complaints.
Norwich were brighter at the start of the second half and passed up a perfect opportunity to get back into the game when Cameron Jerome hooked a straightforward effort onto the bar, remarkable given that he was unmarked around 10 yards from goal and had a virtual open goal in which to deposit the ball. A lack of a proper striker has been a real weakness for Alex Neil's side this season and Patrick Bamford, ineligible to play against his parent club, presumably sighed gently.
The hosts got back into the game with around half an hour to go -- the delightful buzzing pest that is Wes Hoolahan slid a pass through the narrowest of passages in the Chelsea defence for Nathan Redmond, who leathered the ball high into the net.
Those cries of frustration from the home support swiftly turned into ones of hope. Alas, despite plenty of bluster and effort those in yellow were ultimately left disappointed.
2. Hiddink lets young stars take the stage
For a manager who knows he will only hold the job until the end of the season, you might expect Hiddink not to care too much about the future of Chelsea. However, he seems to have at least half an eye on life beyond May; one way he displayed that was with his deployment of a couple of youngsters at Carrow Road.
Kenedy and Traore started for Chelsea -- the former at left-back for his first league start, the latter on the right of the attacking three behind Costa. Both men impressed or at least did enough to display their participation was worthwhile. This is exactly the sort of game in which to try players like this, a league game of little consequence against a struggling team that gives them some first-team football with an eye on what they can contribute beyond this campaign.
Traore's selection was trailed with some fine praise from Hiddink earlier in the week. "He's a very fresh guy and I like his attitude," said the Dutchman of the leggy forward. "He's not afraid to make errors and he's not influenced by external circumstances... In terms of the way of playing, we talked and trained with him on where he has to improve... you can teach him things and he's very clever to do it."
These are perhaps the best of Chelsea's youngsters on the current periphery along with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who received a new five-year contract this week. The club has made plenty of their recruitment of young players over the last 10 years or so, but the purpose of the majority seems to have been keeping other clubs staffed and providing a little pocket money when they're sold on at a healthy premium. The last player brought through their system to become a first-team regular is John Terry; this internal promotion problem hasn't been properly addressed by any of the managers that have been in charge at Stamford Bridge since.
Perhaps these young players simply haven't been good enough but it's worth considering that the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne were sold before they really got the chance to display that one way or another. It serves Hiddink's short-term purposes to give some of his preferred players the odd rest with European priorities ahead, but at least the man who has no long-term investment in Chelsea's future is giving the future a chance.
3. Canaries fail to take flight
Norwich persisted with the loose 3-4-3/5-4-1 system that was almost successful at Leicester on Saturday, and there was certainly a decent amount of logic to that decision. Like Leicester, visiting Chelsea would be the team under pressure to attack; therefore, Neil opted to pack the defence with the hope of creating some scoring chances through Robbie Brady and Pinto, two men ideally suited to play as wing-backs.
Problems came when the inevitable colossal holes opened up in the centre of midfield, not a surprise given the formation allowed for only two men in the middle. Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic, Oscar and Hazard quickly found ways to overload the hosts in their half. Johnny Howson and Alex Tettey (before he went off in the first half, replaced by Gary O'Neill) did their best but in the end, it was a sensible decision to alter things after the break. Jerome was often isolated up front on his own, so bringing Dieumerci Mbokani on to help him out made some sense.
The problem was that Norwich never really got any sort of rhythm going after their goal: Redmond occasionally flitted into troubling areas and Hoolahan tried to create, but aside from a couple of crosses they couldn't provide much service to the front two. Whether they would have converted any chances presented to them is another matter, but while Norwich have struggled for goals from their forwards this season (just seven between Mbokani and Jerome), their lack of potency on this occasion was at least partly down to a lack of clear chances created.
Nick Miller is a football writer for ESPN FC, the Guardian, Eurosport and a number of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.