Thursday 14 December 2017

Season of promise for Chelsea ends in waves of regret

Chelsea 0 Norwich City 0

Chelsea's Eden Hazard is sent flying by Norwich City's Ryan Bennett at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's Eden Hazard is sent flying by Norwich City's Ryan Bennett at Stamford Bridge
Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and John Terry salute the Chelsea supporters at the end of the match at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's Ashley Cole fires a shot past Norwich City's Russell Martin
Norwich City's Bradley Johnson tackles Chelsea's Frank Lampard
John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic confront referee Neil Swarbrick after he turns down a Chelsea penalty appeal
Norwich City's Russell Martin turns away from Chelsea's Eden Hazard
Chelsea's Gary Cahill swipes at the ball ahead of Norwich City's Johan Elmander
Chelsea's Eden Hazard holds off the challenge of Norwich City's Robert Snodgrass
Chelsea's Willian controls the ball under pressure from the Norwich City defence

Henry Winter

This stale event felt like a wedding reception petering out early through lack of interest, the marquee being dismantled with guests wandering out.

Chelsea's hearts were not in it after going out of Europe, knowing their title ambitions had faded while some feared that this was goodbye.

The game was lifeless yet the aftermath was poignant, almost wake-like.

Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole stood together, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, waving to the fans.

The trio, such wonderful club servants, await the decision of the board on their future. Lampard's daughters handed out boots to supporters, while Terry consoled Cole who seemed particularly emotional.

BULLETIN

The Bridge announcer attempted to lift the mood, confirming that Chelsea had definitely qualified direct into the group stage of the Champions League but the bulletin had a hollow ring. Chelsea's season promised so much more at times.

The announcer might have raised spirits more if he had declared that Chelsea were about to buy a striker, a reliable finisher to turn the losses against the likes of Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland into draws or wins and transform the draws against West Ham, West Brom and now Norwich into victories.

Chelsea excelled against the leading lights and faltered against the less expansive, signalling a need for a more ruthless finisher and for more guile.

Some of the guests at the Bridge were still whooping it up, the visitors from Norfolk enjoying a sing-song in the evening sunshine.

"We are staying up,'' chanted many of the 3,000 Norwich fans, who had got behind their team all game, who continue to believe in their survival prospects, yet there was an inescapable feeling of both clubs' seasons ending here.

Norwich took a point at the Bridge, which would usually be a good point, but surely not enough to draw much hope in the fight against relegation.

Neil Adams' game plan was clearly to frustrate Chelsea, parking the bus to use local parlance, and his defenders and the goalkeeper, John Ruddy, did well.

Adams came for a point and got it but such caution was a huge gamble, one that could backfire before Norwich even kick a ball again.

If 17th-placed Sunderland only draw at home with West Brom on Wednesday, then Norwich are down.

Even if Sunderland lose, Norwich will go down if Gus Poyet's side take a point against Swansea City, again at the Stadium of Light, on Sunday. And, even if Sunderland lose, Norwich will go down if they fail to defeat Arsenal at Carrow Road on Sunday.

The maths are against Norwich, whose goal difference also works against them, even more so after this draw.

Adams has risked it all on West Brom winning on Wednesday, so giving Norwich a lifeline going into the last weekend.

It was why he was happy for the toothless but hard-working Johan Elmander to play upfront on his own for 67 minutes until replaced by the livelier, pacier Nathan Redmond.

It was why Adams refused to bring a striker on in the final few minutes, keeping Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel on the bench. It was a game plan that could come back to haunt the Canaries.

Chris Hughton was criticised for a negative mentality, and was dismissed. Of course, if Sunderland slip up twice and Norwich ambush Arsenal, Adams will be feted as a tactical genius, the board lauded for replacing Hughton, but the odds are slim.

Hooper and Van Wolfswinkel might not have beaten Mark Schwarzer, of course, and Norwich's travails in front of goal have cost them dear. They have failed to score in four of their last five games and this is probably why they are going down.

Norwich spent much of the warm-up with shooting practice but to no avail. Chelsea's own attacking deficiencies have inhibited them.

After lamenting the "balls that hit the post without the desire to go in" (on 32 occasions), Mourinho found prominent space in his programme notes to eulogise about Roman Abramovich and inform the fans that the Russian will "give us all the conditions to build for the future."

For conditions, read finances.

Mourinho also paid tribute to his son Jose Jnr in his programme notes – an unusually personal heartfelt message to the teenager who sits a few rows behind his dad at every home game.

"I want to tell him thanks for being with me every second of every match," he wrote. "Thank you kid, for being my kid."

It was a rare peak behind the battle-lines of the ferocious competitor, who is already planning for next season. Insert a serial finisher in this team, a striker of the quality of Diego Costa, and Chelsea will be a real force.

Mourinho needs to keep the creative likes of Eden Hazard, who started on the bench here and cut a slightly sheepish figure before kick-off as he collected a fans' award in his tracksuit.

The first half was largely desultory. Andre Schurrle tested Ruddy with a snap-shot. Martin Olsson sped into the box, knocking the ball slightly too far, but still caught by Terry.

With some legitimacy, Olsson and Adams appealed loudly for a penalty but referee Neil Swarbrick waved play on.

Bradley Johnson then took a blow to the face, ran to the touchline, removed his blood-stained shirt to reveal a patchwork of tattoos before donning a clean shirt which lacked a name and number. Nobody really wanted to be associated with this dull fare.

Chelsea responded, Nemanja Matic playing a defence-splitting pass to release Schurrle, who hit the upright. Terry headed a corner straight at Ruddy.

Some of the niftiest footwork came at half-time from Roy Bentley, who turns 90 in a fortnight. Chelsea's first title-winning captain did a little jig on the pitch, clutching his walking stick like Fred Astaire dancing with his cane.

"Sign him up," chanted the Shed.

Chelsea needed an injection of ideas. Hazard and David Luiz replaced Lampard and Mohamed Salah and Luiz almost had an immediate impact, sweeping a shot against the bar.

DISBELIEF

Swarbrick was clearly not in a mood to give a penalty. Chelsea shook their heads in disbelief as the referee waved play on after Schurrle was brought down by Alexander Tettey and then Ryan Bennett challenged the jumping Hazard.

Mourinho smiled wryly, almost mockingly. He ran down the tunnel, checked the replay on the monitor in his office, re-appeared moments later, and delivered his verdict to the fourth official, Michael Oliver.

Mourinho then turned to his subs and mouthed the word "pen". Yet, the score was probably 1-1 on legitimate penalties denied.

Redmond's arrival gave Norwich a bit more zest. He slipped a ball through to Robert Snodgrass, whose shot was blocked by the sliding Gary Cahill. Ruddy was standing firm, denying Hazard brilliantly as the game meandered into anonymity.

Afterwards, Mourinho granted the Chelsea supporters the briefest of farewells for the summer in the traditional last home game send-off and then was back down the tunnel to brood, leaving the pitch to his players, their wives, girlfriends, children and even the occasional mother.

Luiz's mother joined her son on the pitch – "Mummy Luiz" on the back of her Chelsea shirt – along with assorted WAGS and small children, as the supporters briefly forgot that Chelsea had failed to win at home for the third game in succession. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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