If the task was simply to show Frank Lampard that they are capable of communicating on the pitch, then Chelsea’s players passed the test. The desire was clear when César Azpilicueta roared with delight when the final whistle sealed a crucial win. Yet telling a teammate whether they have time on the ball seems a rather basic aim for a side chasing Champions League qualification and although Chelsea found a way to bounce back from their Sheffield United debacle, it was disconcerting to see them fall short when it came to expressing themselves in possession against the worst team in the Premier League.
Azpilicueta’s celebration hinted at relief. Far from running riot against opponents who dropped into the Championship after losing 4-0 to West Ham on Saturday, Chelsea ended up labouring once again on home soil, creating little and failing to build on Olivier Giroud breaking Norwich’s resistance just before the interval. Ruthlessness was in short supply and Lampard will not be fooled after Giroud’s firm header tightened his side’s grip on third place, four points clear of Leicester and Manchester United after playing one game more.
Sterner examinations lie in wait. Chelsea’s final two league games are against Liverpool and Wolves, while they have an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United to prepare for on Sunday. Being generous, perhaps they were keeping their powder dry. Even so there will have to be an improvement at Wembley if Lampard is to avoid a fourth defeat to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side this season.
While an empty stadium offered an opportunity to assess whether Lampard was right to home in on his team’s lack of noise after the aberration at Bramall Lane, the early stages offered a reminder that Chelsea have more than an attitude problem. An inability to break down opponents intent on defending deep has been a weakness throughout the campaign and, as an uneventful opening period wore on, it was not hard to see why Chelsea have already signed Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech to add incision to an inconsistent attack next season.
A huge opportunity was threatening to pass Chelsea by after Manchester United’s late slip against Southampton. If Lampard was hoping to see his players let out some of their anger by tearing into Norwich from the first whistle, he was left sorely disappointed. There was plenty of chatter from Chelsea – the underworked goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabagala, kept himself amused by constantly barking orders – but little sign of a spark. Norwich, atrocious at the back for the majority of the campaign, were finding it too easy to spoil the contest.
Chelsea’s passing was too slow. There were five changes from Lampard, who brought in some experience after speaking about the need for some character, but the frustration was mounting. Too many crosses were failing to hit the target, the one-twos on the edge of the area were failing to come off and the lethargy was summed up Kurt Zouma picking out a cameraman with a crossfield pass.
Yet the prospect Norwich’s feeble defence holding out was unlikely and Chelsea upped the tempo after a while, stretching the play and involving their wingers more. Zouma wasted a glorious chance from a corner, heading wide from close range, and Christian Pulisic forced Tim Krul to make a stunning save following a smart turn.
Pulisic, always lively with the ball at his feet, looked the likeliest to pick the lock and so it proved on the stroke of half-time, the American teasing Norwich on the left before crossing for Giroud to head in from six yards.
With the tension released, Chelsea ought to have been hungry for goals at the start of the second half. They pressed to win the ball and almost doubled their lead when Willian pinched possession before seeing his shot deflected over. Giroud, up front in place of Tammy Abraham, planted a header over from the resulting corner.
Yet it was still too pedestrian. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, starting in midfield as he continues to build his fitness after recovering from an achilles injury, struggled to make an impression supporting Giroud. Willian, out of contract at the end of the season, was erratic on the right.
Sensing that they were still in the contest, Norwich started to have a go.
Chelsea needed maximum focus in defence to avoid a calamity and although Krul had to make late saves from Pulisic and Marcos Alonso, Lampard was shown that turning up the volume will not drown out the focus on his side’s flaws.
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