All season, Chelsea’s major problem has been its inability to break down limited but dogged teams, and the issue reared its head again on Sunday as it was held to a soporific goalless draw by Norwich City. Given Chelsea could theoretically still win the title and Norwich avoid relegation, that this was a game with a huge amount riding on it at both ends of the table, there was a strangely muted atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. As it was, nothing was really resolved: Chelsea slim chance of winning the Premier League title grew slimmer, while Norwich could yet avoid relegation.
Mourinho has complained all season about the quality of his strikers and their inability to conjure goals from the half-chances but he must take some of the blame. His preference for dynamic, hard-working players in the creative trident is no secret, and they are the reason Chelsea is so good on the counter-attack: to the extent it’s won its last seven games against members of the top seven. When the onus is on it to take the initiative, though, it’s hard not to wonder whether lining up Mohamed Salah, Willian and Andre Schurrle behind Demba Ba didn’t leave his side a little one-dimensional, a little lacking in guile.
Oscar was left out of the squad altogether, adding to speculation that Mourinho is frustrated with his application. It may simply be that the Brazilian is exhausted after a year in which he followed up the Confederations Cup by being a regular for Chelsea, but Mourinho hinted last week that Oscar’s focus has slipped since Christmas as he begins to look ahead to the World Cup. Eden Hazard was left on the bench – furthering speculation that Mourinho is frustrated by his lack of application, as manifested by the way he lost Juanfran in the build-up to Atletico Madrid’s equalizer in the Champions League semi-final on Wednesday. Sunday’s tabloids carried suggestions that either or both of Oscar and Hazard could be sold as Mourinho rebuilds his squad over the summer. With Juan Mata sold to Manchester United in January, the “Mazacar” trio that so enthralled under Rafa Benitez last season is being systematically dismantled.
Not until the 31st minute did Chelsea really conjure a chance, Nemanja Matic winning the ball in midfield and releasing Schurrle, who cut into the box and curled a low shot against the post. Chelsea had – slightly mystifyingly – been left furious by a penalty decision in its last home game, the 2-1 defeat to Sunderland, but it got the benefit of a decision after 11 minutes as Ashley Cole and John Terry both seemed to trip Martin Olsson as he burst into the box. Had the referee Neil Swarbrick given a penalty he would almost certainly have had to send off one or the other: as it was, two trips somehow equaled no foul. And that, along with the free ice-creams distributed to fans before the game and the 90-year-old Roy Bentley, captain of Chelsea’s title-winning 1954-55 side dancing on the pitch at half-time, was pretty much it:
Mourinho’s frustration at his side’s display was evident from his decision to take his seat on the bench several minutes before his side came out for the second half, and from the two substitutions he made, David Luiz coming on for Frank Lampard and Hazard replacing the ineffective Salah. Within three minutes Luiz had hit the bar and Chelsea generally looked livelier without making great inroads. Hazard probably should have had a penalty as Ryan Bennett took a swipe at him in the box, the Belgian’s sharp reactions in leaping out of the way probably costing him the decision as the ball broke to John Terry, who was offside. Hazard then had a shot beaten away by John Ruddy after darting in from the left last three men, but this was still a Chelsea long on effort and slog and short on imagination and wit.
With 19 minutes remaining Nathan Redmond laid in Robert Snodgrass but as the Norwich bench got to their feet in the hope of possible salvation, his effort was deflected wide. Still, a draw at least keeps Norwich fighting for another few days. A possible legal challenge to the decision not to dock Sunderland a point for fielding Ji Dong-Won having failed to secure international clearance following his return from a loan spell at Augsburg seems sure to fail. Although countless precedents from the Football League have been cited, the Premier League rules are different and make clear that a points deduction can be waived if the offense is a failure to secure international clearance on a player who is already registered at the club.
To stay up Norwich must beat Arsenal at Carrow Road next week and hope Sunderland loses to both West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday and Swansea City next Sunday. It’s a faint hope but it is, at least, still hope.