As Norwich City's chirpy challenge was finally quashed yesterday, there was a glimpse of the new Chelsea but also a strong suggestion that the transition will not be as smooth as anyone at the club would like.
Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaka, some £40 million worth of substitutes, were on the pitch as the former's goal on debut ended the visitors' resistance during 11 minutes of added time caused by a nasty injury to one of the old guard, Didier Drogba. He had crashed to the ground in an aerial collision with the goalkeeper and lost consciousness before being revived and taken to hospital. He was allowed home last night.
"We wanted a full examination but he is showing signs of recovery," Chelsea's manager, Andre Villas-Boas, said later. "I'm very grateful to the players of both sides and many medical staff for reacting so quickly to a dangerous situation."
Both before and after that incident, Chelsea had made the hardest of work of inflicting a first defeat on the Norfolk side, who provided convincing evidence that their successive promotions need not come to be regarded as too much too soon.
A level playing field? Having spent something in the region of £8m this summer, compared with Chelsea's £58m – they announced the signing of Mexican midfielder Ulises Davila last night on a five-year contract – Norwich will be playing uphill for most of the season but can take much heart from their efforts to date. This fixture apart, the League's computer has been kind to them, and after draws with Wigan and Stoke they need not fear facing West Bromwich Albion, Bolton and Sunderland following the international break.
They may not have won an away game at this level since 2004, but even ending that run was briefly a possibility, despite having conceded an early goal to Jose Bosingwa. The vigorous Grant Holt, who had 53 goals to his name in those last two seasons, took advantage of a horrible defensive mix-up to equalise and Norwich were pressing before their goalkeeper John Ruddy was sent off for conceding the penalty from which Frank Lampard regained the lead. Mata's late goal sent them home on the wrong end of a harsh scoreline.
"I thought we were excellent," their manager, Paul Lambert, said. "The penalty turned the game and we could have been 2-1 up then. I can't fault the performance against a club that could win the Premier League." Chelsea have not looked like that team in two laboured home wins and a draw at Stoke, although their manager seemed surprisingly pleased with their work. "We had a solid 90-minute performance," he insisted. "I'm very happy that the team showed commitment and desire in fighting back."
Changing formation for this game to a 4-1-3-2, he paired Drogba with Fernando Torres from the start in a partnership that once more looked flawed. The £50m man was the one who tended to pull wide more but apart from one pass slipped through the middle there was little sign of a growing understanding.
Lambert had opted for wing-backs on either side of three centre-halves, although the earliest stages suggested that they might be in for a torrid afternoon. Ruddy had to push a shot from Ramires round the post and in only the sixth minute Florent Malouda and then Lampard worked the ball square for Bosingwa, who struck an even better shot than Ramires, flying across Ruddy and in off the far post.
If that presented a test of character, Norwich passed it. They passed the ball too, in the manner Lambert likes, and three times before half-time infiltrated the home defence with some ease. First Wes Hoolahan, playing just behind the front two, clipped a ball forward for Holt, who could not quite control it. Next Hoolahan put Chris Martin through – is it a Coldplay when Norwich do that? – and Henrique Hilario had to block the shot, chase him round the penalty area and then scramble back to stop the follow-up by Kyle Naughton. Finally, Naughton hoisted a cross over the central defenders for Holt, whose powerful header was held low down by Hilario.
For a long time only set pieces offered Chelsea the opportunities they craved. Drogba, having hit one free-kick into the top section of the Shed, which takes some doing, kept his next one much lower and close to Ruddy's post. Two corners early in the second half were equally promising, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic getting good headers in, but the latter's next aerial intervention was catastrophic. Just past the hour he went for a long cross by Naughton that the goalkeeper wanted and merely headed it up into the air, from where Holt was able to hook it into a net that Hilario had rashly left unguarded.
Nicolas Anelka replaced Drogba, Mata came on and Lukaku was preparing to join them as replacement for Torres, who had been booked for a high kick, when Chelsea broke away to dramatic effect. Anelka sent Ramires through and Ruddy brought him down with a challenge that cost a red card and penalty. Declan Rudd came on to face it and had he stood still might have stopped Lampard's kick straight down the middle.
Lambert lost his cool, pushing Chelsea's fitness coach Jose Mario Rocha in the chest becaused he "flew right into our technical area". As a long period of added time in the rain left both managers soaked, Ivanovic somehow missed with a header from five yards and Mata capitalised on Ritchie de Laet's misplaced pass with the third goal.
"When the midweek games come round, it will help the fluency of our game improve," Villas-Boas claimed. Chelsea followers must hope so.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Hilario; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Mikel; Ramires, Lampard, Malouda (Mata, 67); Torres (Lukaku, 83), Drogba (Anelka, 67).
Norwich City (3-4-1-2): Ruddy; De Laet, Barnett, Whitbread (Pilkington, 30); Naughton, Crofts, Johnson, Tierney; Hoolahan (Morison, 60); Holt, Martin (Rudd, 81).
Referee Mike Jones
Man of the match Holt
Match rating 7/10
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