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Juan Mata’s first-half strike was enough to secure all three points for Chelsea as they edged Norwich City in a hard-fought contest at Carrow Road.
The win moves the Blues to within four points of second-placed Manchester City in the Barclays Premier League table but it was only a fantastic effort seven minutes from half-time that separated the two sides.
Mata, who scored his sixth goal in eight games with aplomb, also passed up a presentable opportunity with the score goalless while Norwich had decent spells of possession but were too blunted in attack to ever truly test Petr Cech.
In a slow-burning first 25 minutes Chelsea only had two long-range efforts from David Luiz to speak for, both of which were fired high and wide by the Brazilian.
The hosts were happy to let Rafa Banitez’s charges have possession around the halfway line with only captain Grant Holt, recalled following a hamstring problem, remaining upfield for the Canaries.
Chelsea were almost ahead on the half-hour mark as Luiz robbed Wes Hoolahan of the ball before picking out Mata, who shot into the side-netting when well placed. Luiz was involved again moments later as he squared the ball on the edge of the box to John Obi Mikel, whose thundering drive rose just over Mark Bunn’s crossbar.
The sustained spell of pressure eventually paid off for the west Londoners and it was Mata who opened the goalscoring in style. The Spain international cut in from the left before letting fly with an effort from 25 yards that beat Bunn.
A near-post corner at the start of the second half almost doubled Chelsea’s advantage as Oscar’s set-piece evaded everyone before Bunn reacted well to push the ball wide.
The Norwich goalkeeper was called into action again a couple of minutes later as Cesar Azpilicueta’s low cross reached Victor Moses at the far post and the former Wigan Athletic winger forced another smart save from Bunn.
The weather conditions worsened during the second half and Norwich started to enjoy more of the ball in attacking positions. They could still not force Chelsea stand-in skipper Cech into a meaningful save but the movement of Hoolahan and Holt started to cause problems.
Fernando Torres was struggling to get involved in the game for Chelsea with Norwich defensive duo Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner handling him well.
It was Moses who again came close for the visitors after Russell Martin missed a headed clearance and the ball fell to the feet of the Nigeria international who fired a shot wide.
The travelling Chelsea contingent had been singing the name of Frank Lampard for the majority of the game and Benitez introduced the 34-year-old with 17 minutes remaining.
Hughton gambled with a little over 10 minutes left on the clock as he brought on a second striker in Steve Morison, with Pilkington making way. The change did not have the desired effect as Norwich still could not muster any clear-cut chances to take a point from the game.
Chelsea substitute Eden Hazard forced another decent save from Bunn with only a couple of minutes remaining after being found by a deft flick from Torres before receiving a caution moments later for a cynical clip of Martin’s heels as the Norwich full-back looked to counter.
The resulting free-kick was almost hooked into his own goal by Cole before Bassong headed the corner over Cech’s bar, but the Blues saw out a shaky last few moments to secure a valuable win.
Norwich manager Chris Hughton: "I thought we dealt with them for really big periods of the game; the chances they had I thought were fairly minimal, we restricted them. As the game opened up in the second half I think we broke very well and showed good energy and might have got a draw in the end.
"The area I was disappointed in during the first half was that, we have been good on the ball, but we were a little bit loose and it allowed them to have three or four good counter-attacks. We dealt with them eventually very well but it was a ball that was given away [that led to the goal]. They broke very well and we got bodies around the ball but I think you have to admire the strike.
"That is why Chelsea pay the money they do for the attacking players they have and it was probably the one real bit of quality in the game that perhaps deserved a goal."
Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez: "[Juan Mata] is playing really well. Even without the ball he is working hard but when we are in possession he is making the difference, I always say the same; if the team are playing well these players can make the difference.
"I think the Premier League has a lot of good players and Mata is one of the best for sure - he can be even better. Mata is a player who is dangerous - inside the box and outside the box, we are really pleased with him.
"The team has won three games in a row since Japan... against Man United and Arsenal they [Norwich] have won so we knew it could be tough, I'm pleased for the team and pleased for Juan.
"After being injured like he [Frank Lampard] was, we needed fresh legs and we have to manage the squad. We can't play so many games with the same players so we have to manage and everyone is important.
|29 Dec 2012||v Man City (H)|
|01 Jan 2013||v West Ham (A)|
|12 Jan 2013||v Newcastle (H)|
|19 Jan 2013||v Liverpool (A)|
|30 Jan 2013||v Spurs (H)|
|02 Feb 2013||v QPR (A)|