Chelsea took another step closer to Champions League football next season with a victory over Norwich City in which the scoreline betrayed the true control we enjoyed in the game.
Olivier Giroud’s header in first-half stoppage time ultimately proved the difference between the teams sitting third and bottom of the Premier League at the start of play, positions that didn’t change after this result with the Canaries’ relegation already confirmed and the Blues strengthening their place in the top four.
The win takes Frank Lampard’s side four points clear of Leicester City and Manchester United, having played a game more. Despite our defensive struggles on the road, it was also a fourth clean sheet in our past five home games and was the necessary response to defeat in Sheffield at the weekend.
The points were richly deserved following a dominant display in which we prevented the visitors from having a single shot on target at Kepa’s goal, enjoying 20 efforts of our own but failing to find the final-third proficiency of previous recent home victories.
Christian Pulisic did see an effort tipped against the crossbar before Giroud’s opener, while Marcos Alonso and the American again went close in the second period. Despite a lack of goals, it was the points that mattered most and the Blues now have two more hurdles to overcome in order to achieve the season’s ultimate aim of a top-four finish.
Familiar possession pattern
As in so many of our games this season, particularly at home, the Blues started with a lot of the ball up against an opponent who were content to sit deep. How we made use of that possession would ultimately determine our success in the contest but the conversion into chances was minimal in the game’s first quarter.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek glanced a near-post header wide and Marcos Alonso fired a dangerous cross in from the left but there was nobody there to meet it as much of our attacking play was forced to come from wide areas in the opening exchanges.
There were 20 minutes on the clock before the hosts forced the first save from Canaries keeper Tim Krul when Giroud latched on to a high pass forward, though the Frenchman’s contact was not as sweet as he would have wanted and gave the Norwich number one a routine save to make.
Pulisic had perhaps our best opening of the entire first half at the end of one of our best moves just after the first drinks break. The space opened up as Kurt Zouma stepped forward purposefully from centre-back and fed Alonso into space on the left flank, with the Spaniard delivering low but Pulisic firing left-footed into the side-netting.
Cesar Azpilicueta then provided a delivery from the opposite wing for Giroud but the striker was less comfortable on his right foot and skewed the shot awkwardly into the Shed Lower.
Persistence pays off
As the half wore on, there was a growing feeling that this might not be our day in front of goal and that was intensified when Krul made an impressive fingertip save to divert Pulisic’s close-range effort against the crossbar. From the following corner, Zouma rose highest but failed to hit the target with a header.
With Lampard mentally preparing for his half-time briefing, the Norwich resistance was finally breached. Pulisic found a moment of inspiration that had hitherto been evading him, cutting back on to his right foot to deliver a teasing inswinging cross that was floated perfectly onto Giroud’s head.
The 33-year-old did the rest, guiding the ball past Krul and putting himself on the scoresheet for the fourth time since the campaign restart.
Craving a cushion
Having toiled to find the opener throughout the first 45 minutes, Lampard’s emphasis at the break would have been to find a second early after the restart and create a comfortable cushion between his side and the Canaries.
However, the recently-relegated visitors remained resilient despite their return ticket to the Championship having already been booked. Willian worked hard to win back possession but saw a deflected strike loop narrowly over, while Krul did extremely well to keep out Pulisic and Alonso as the half wore on.
The crosses kept on coming in but in the end we had to settle for a single-margin victory on a summer’s night in west London. A couple more of those and Lampard’s job of returning Chelsea to the Champions League next season, a task deemed so improbable back in August, will be achieved.
Giroud has been a significant source of goals for the Blues since the season restarted last month, with his headed opener here taking him to four goals since the resumption and six Premier League goals for the season. He has now scored in three successive league starts for the first time as a Chelsea player, and netted in six of his last eight Premier League starts.
Artistry and aerial prowess have defined his eight years in England, with this latest headed goal his 31st in the Premier League, five more than any other player since the summer of 2012.
Hakim in the house!
Hakim Ziyech, our new signing from Ajax, was at Stamford Bridge for the first time to watch his new team-mates in action. The Moroccan has been training alone at Cobham in recent days after touching down in London on Friday and cannot feature until the current campaign concludes.
In the meantime, he lent his support from the stands and cheered the Blues on to an important victory in the quest for Champions League football next season.
There were five changes from disappointing defeat at Sheffield United at the weekend, with Mateo Kovacic featuring for the first time since going off injured against West Ham.
The Croatian and Loftus-Cheek were additions to our midfield alongside Jorginho, with Alonso and Toni Rudiger coming into the back four and Giroud returning to lead the line up front.
A generous five-day break until our next assignment, the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Wembley. That one gets underway on Sunday at 6pm.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Zouma, Rudiger, Alonso (James 81); Jorginho, Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek (Barkley 67); Willian, Giroud (Abraham 86), Pulisic (Hudson-Odoi 81)
Unused subs Caballero, Christensen, Tomori, Mount, Pedro
Scorer Giroud 45+3
Booked Zouma 60; Kovacic 62
Norwich City Krul; Aarons, Godfrey, Klose, Lewis; Tettey (c) (Stiepermann 79), McLean; Rupp (Martin 89) , Cantwell (Buendia 72), Hernandez (Pukki 79); Drmic (Idah 79)
Unused subs McGovern, Vranic, Trybull, Thomas
Booked Cantwell 59
Referee Jonathan Moss