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Aug 27, 2011

Canaries take plaudits but not points

The first fortnight of this Premier League campaign has been less than inspiring for those of us who have struggled to identify a compelling plotline, yet Norwich City may be ready to fill the void after this compelling display at Stamford Bridge.

Neutrals with an appetite for heavyweight clashes between the biggest names in world football have been left short changed as early-season fixtures such as Blackburn v Wolves, Norwich v Stoke and Wigan v QPR have been unlikely to get footballer lovers on the west coast of America out of their beds for an early morning helping of the beautiful game.

Yet the buzz of excitement among the hordes of yellow-shirted Norwich fans as they marched gleefully towards Stamford Bridge for this fixture confirmed that there is a story worthy of promotion in the Premier League after all, with the ambitious new boys from Norfolk relishing their moment among the game's giants.

The possibility that every Norwich appearance at major Premier League venues such as Stamford Bridge may fall into the 'one night only' category ensures their delight at anything this side achieves on the pitch will be celebrated by eager Canaries supporters and this performance against lacklustre Chelsea suggested they will be far more than helpless whipping boys in the months ahead.

Norwich could and probably should have claimed at least a point from this game, after Grant Holt's 63rd minute equaliser gave them real hope of leaving this grand stage with more than their pride intact. A burst of pace from Ramires ended with the Chelsea man being upended in the as the box and Frank Lampard scored a penalty that ended their dreams eight minutes from time.

Yet even in defeat, this was a day for Norwich to cherish rather than lament. In Irish midfielder Wes Hoolahan, they have a little bundle of energy who has the potential to become a star in the Premier League, with powerhouse striker Holt giving Blues skipper John Terry enough trouble in this game to confirm he will be a menace to top-flight defences.

They will need to take more of their chances if they are to make a mark this season as Chris Martin, Kyle Naughton and Holt all fluffed chances to strike gold when they were presented with a sight of goal, but their determination to battle to the end was confirmed that Lambert has a group of players who will fight against the odds for their remaining 35 league games.

As for Chelsea, this was another worrying display, as many of the flaws that undermined their push for trophies last season came into view once more, with the continuing despair of Fernando Torres showing no sign of ending.

Villas-Boas's decision to start with Torres and Didier Drogba up front was the latest attempt to defy the logic that the two frontmen cannot play together, but this latest doomed experiment merely served to cement that scepticism.

Making similar runs all too often and failing find a unified wavelength, Drogba and Torres looked back to their worst as the former blasted free kicks into the upper section of the Shed End stand, while Torres looked off the pace as he gave the ball away time and again.

When you throw in another one-paced performance from Lampard, a woeful showing from Florent Malouda and the reality that stand-in keeper Hilario was Chelsea's best player for much of the game, this was not the performance Villas-Boas would have hoped for.

The sight of Drogba being stretchered off after apparently being knocked unconscious as he challenged for the ball in the air added to the concern among Chelsea fans who feared the second goal they so badly needed could not come from a team lacking in inspiration.

When the second Chelsea goal arrived, it was something of a surprise as it was Norwich who were throwing men forward as they went in search of an improbable winner. Referee Mike Jones had little option other than to award Chelsea a penalty and send off keeper John Ruddy after he hauled down the Chelsea charger, though Canaries boss Lambert took exception to the appeals for a red card from members of Villas-Boas's staff as a scuffle broke out on the touchline.

Despite his frustration, Lambert was satisfied with his side's efforts as he met the press in a crowded Stamford Bridge media room. "We were pushing for a second goal when Chelsea caught us on the break, so that says all you need to know about my team," he said. "This performance shows to me that we are in this league on merit and while we have lots to learn, our first few games confirms we can compete at this level."

Villas-Boas tried to present a positive slant on Chelsea's latest under-par display, with his acceptance that Norwich caused his side plenty of problems confirmation that he needs to ignite his players into life quickly.

"We made a lot of technical mistakes in our passing and that meant we lacked the fluency we needed to take control of the game," he stated. "We can be pleased that we fought back from the concession of a goal, but Norwich deserve credit for giving us a tough game. They will not be easy to beat for anyone in the Premier League this season.

"Our game will improve when we start to play more game and we start to find our fluency. At the moment, we are still looking for our best performances, but at least we are still winning games."

Chelsea were not at their best by a long way, but Norwich did enough to suggest that the remaining 35 games of their Premier League odyssey will be well worth following.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Grant Holt

The Norwich skipper led the line heroically without too much support and he scored with a cool finish. Holt should gain plenty of confidence from this display.

TORRES HEARTACHE: The £50 million Chelsea hit-man looked confused and a little embarrassed as he was substituted by boss Villas-Boas late on. This was another shocking display from the Spaniard.

TOUCHLINE SPAT: Norwich boss Paul Lambert scuffled with a member of Villas-Boas's staff on the touchline seconds after the game changing penalty was awarded. "I felt he was disrespectful to be marching up the touchline demanding my player should be sent off," said Lambert. "The red card was harsh as their player had lost control of the ball."

DROGBA INJURY: "Didier lost consciousness completely on the field and he started to shows some signs of recovery in the dressing room," said Chelsea boss Villas-Boas. "It was a dangerous situation and I praise the players on both teams for helping in this situation." Drogba was taken to a local hospital for scans and was allowed to return home on Saturday night.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Every player in Villas-Boas's line-up needs to take his game up a few levels if Chelsea are to return to winning ways this season. They look like a team looking for inspiration and have to hope new boys Mata and Romelu Lukaku lift their spirits.

NORWICH VERDICT: This performance should fill Paul Lambert's men with confidence and no-one can now doubt that they are ready to make their mark in the Premier League

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