Saturday 17 March 2018

Villas-Boas concedes defeat in title race after latest stumble

Norwich 0 Chelsea 0


Andre Villas-Boas keeps playing possum. On St Stephen's Day, the prognosis for Chelsea's title challenge was dire and after defeat at home to Aston Villa on New Year's Eve their prospects looked about as promising as those of a man paddling off into the North Sea in his canoe.

Turns out, of course, that the Canoe Man was alive and well and living next door. And Chelsea were still secretly in the hunt. In fact this game was Chelsea's final chance. Now it is definitely dead. Sort of.

"This could have been a good last opportunity to threaten for this title," Villas-Boas said, before contradicting himself with a flicker of optimism. "We will have to see whether this has been a point gained or two points dropped."

He went on to clarify that this really was it, however, but that this January concession would not affect his players' attitude. "I have been saying it for quite some time," he said.

"It is nothing new. We have not found the winning consistency to make this a little bit more of a title challenge. There is not going to be any lack of ambition and motivation. You might speculate that we might not find the right motivation but there is always motivation when you play for a top club."

There is, of course, plenty of the season left to go and, like with the villain in a horror film, Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini will only rest when the credits start to roll. It is not over, as the stale cliche goes, until the fat lady sings.

Another cliche tells us that inside every fat man there is a thin man struggling to get out. Well inside Fernando Torres there is a world-class goalscorer wriggling like hell, desperate to find the exit. This game was another fruitless struggle.

If Chelsea's title challenge keeps being announced prematurely dead, then so is Torres' emergence from his arid goalless trough. He has now gone over 15 hours without scoring and was substituted after another impotent day.

Just as at Sunderland, though, there were moments in which you recognised something of the old vim, in a weaving run from deep or in his improvised shot, with the outside of the boot, which drew an brilliant save from John Ruddy.

There were also less dignified moments. Norwich had not kept a clean sheet in a single game this season and surely Carrow Road would provide fertile territory. Time and again, Torres was suffocated by Norwich's impressive central defensive pairing of Zak Whitbread and Daniel Ayala.

The replay moment came with an hour played. Torres had grown more and more frustrated as the game wore on but suddenly he had his chance. Jose Bosingwa had found some space on the right and his low cross worked its way through to Torres's feet. There was a moment's pause as he trapped the ball. Surely a goal. But Torres toe-poked wide.

"He tried really hard and he met with a really excellent save from Ruddy in the first half," Villas-Boas said. "His movement was sharp and effective and he was trying hard to get the goals that he wants. He has persisted during all these weeks. We cannot be hypocrites and not take into account what he did against Sunderland, after which everybody praised him for the arrival of his form."

After an even first half in which Norwich's Anthony Pilkington was the outstanding performer, Paul Lambert's side began to tire and Chelsea to dominate. Yet with Frank Lampard having left the field after 35 minutes with a torn calf muscle, Chelsea were short of players to exploit the gaps opening up. Lampard will undergo a scan to discover the severity of the injury.

When Chelsea did manage to get around the Norwich defence, they found Ruddy defiant and when Juan Mata seemed finally to have beaten the goalkeeper, his shot clipped the outside of a post.

Most of Norwich's best work had come before the break. Lambert had made his intentions fairly clear, dropping the impishly inventive Wes Hoolahan for the barrel-chested battering ram of Grant Holt in partnership with the equally imposing Steve Morison. Holt gave Petr Cech some moments of panic while Bradley Johnson's shot, which deflected off John Terry, almost wrong-footed the Chelsea goalkeeper.

That Lambert had gone with both his powerful strikers made the decision to omit new Chelsea signing Gary Cahill seem a little curious -- Cahill is very competitive in the aerial challenge -- but as Villas-Boas pointed out, there is no point throwing somebody in before they have "assimilated the basic principles" of the way he organises his team.

While Raul Meireles should have been punished for handball on the edge of his own box and Norwich argued that Mark Clattenburg was overly officious in not letting them take a quick free kick -- Holt putting Pilkington clean through -- the final whistle was greeted as if this were a victory. It was a reward for the incredible work ethic of these Norwich players.


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