Chelsea emerged victorious over newly-promoted Norwich City at Stamford Bridge by a final score of 3-1 - a figure that doesn't really tell the story of a match probably best described as 'mental'. It featured, in no particular order...
- The Chelsea debuts of Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku.
- An apparently severe head injury to Didier Drogba that saw the Ivorian knocked out for half an hour.
- A screamer of a goal by Jose Bosignwa.
- A red card and a penalty.
- A glimpse of Hilario Goalkeeping™.
- The second-latest goal in Premier League history.
Obviously, it's going to be tricky to get all that making any sort of sense, since nothing about the game really did. But hey, for once I have a good excuse for totally incoherent writing, so that's nice.
Andre Villas-Boas pulled a bit of a surprise with his starting lineup, fielding a loose 4-4-2 diamond with Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres paired up front. The diamond itself was far more fluid than Carlo Ancelotti's implementations of it, with each of Florent Malouda, Frank Lampard and Ramires taking turns to act as the point, with John Obi Mikel always holding. Henrique Hilario started in net with Petr Cech absent, while the defence featured a John Terry/Branislav Ivanovic pairing with Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa as fullbacks.
Norwich, interestingly, started with a 3-5-2 - we'll have more on that when it's time to do the match analysis. It didn't really work very well - the wingbacks played very deep, which nullified Chelsea's front two but left the midfield fairly open. Ramires worked John Ruddy with a long-range shot in the first few minutes, exploiting the open space, but the Canaries failed to heed the warning and allowed Bosingwa far too much time on the ball 25 yards out after the right back had been fed by Lampard.
Bosingwa, who's going through something of a renaissance under new manager Andre Villas-Boas, didn't waste the opportunity. The Portuguese took a touch before smashing the ball with the outside of his right boot, bending his shot just inside the far post with Ruddy left completely helpless. 1-0 Chelsea, and considering their bright start it was well deserved.
The Blues kept pushing forwards after scoring, and came close to notching a second a couple of times, most notably when Torres played in Drogba only for Ruddy to juuust beat him to the ball. However, Norwich had by this point made a tactical switch, pushing more numbers into midfield, and this disrupted Chelsea's possession game. Lampard, Ramires and Malouda, so dominant in the opening exchanges, started to falter, and there was a fifteen minute spell where it felt as though the Canaries had almost every touch thanks to the Blues' midfield playing so sloppily.
Things picked up towards the end of the first half, but for all of Chelsea's neat interplay there were very few great opportunities for them to add to their lead. Fernando Torres was picked out in the box all of once in the first half, and the set pieces Chelsea took were absolutely abysmal, with Drogba and Lampard combining to miss the target by a grand total of seventeen thousand Peter Crouches from two scoreable free kicks. Meanwhile, Norwich had wasted some gilt-edged chances to score, with striker Grant Holt guilty of pirouetting over the ball rather than simply booting it past Hilario when sprung clear six yards from goal. On balance, Chelsea deserved their lead, but things were far tighter than they should have been.
Again, the Blues started brightly in the second half, creating chaos in Ruddy's penalty area as Norwich scrambled to defend, with Terry nearly scoring from a corner only to be denied by Anthony Pilkington making an excellent block. Unlike in the first, Chelsea couldn't make their advantage count - and they'd live to regret that as an awful five minute spell saw the Canaries draw level and then Didier Drogba leveled with a blow that knocked him out for a full half hour.
Branislav Ivanovic, who had his worst game in a while, should ahve been able to deal with a long ball in from the Norwich right, but for some reason Hilario decided to pull one of his trademark bonehead moves (once again, he was otherwise very good) and run straight through the Serbian centre back, knocking both to the ground. The ball was suddenly free for Holt, although nothing was guaranteed - until the striker hooked it around him on the volley and sent his shot looping into the Chelsea net for the equaliser. It was an awful moment and a stark reminder that Petr Cech should be between the sticks for the Blues. Hopefully we'll see the big Czech back after the international break.
If the Holt goal was bad, worse - far worse - was yet to come. Drogba powered into the Norwich box to get on the end of a cross and managed to get his head on the ball only to nod over whilst simultaneously receiving Ruddy's gloved hands to his temple. The Ivorian was knocked cold instantly, dropping limply to the ground, and was more or less instantly surrounded by members of Chelsea's medical team, who treated him for seven minute before finally stretchering him, still unconscious, off the pitch. With no way of knowing how serious the problem was while the match was going on, it was an utterly sickening moment for Blues fans everywhere.
That sense of gloom didn't even abate when Juan Mata made his Chelsea debut, coming in as part of a double substitution with Nicolas Anelka for Malouda and Drogba as Chelsea switched to a 4-3-3 with Torres as a straight centre forward. Mata did make a difference more or less immediately, giving Torres his best chance of the season with a neat cross within moments of coming on (Torres headed it at Ruddy). It was, however, Anelka who was more instrumental in setting up Chelsea's second goal, the striker receiving a nice pass from Mata in Chelsea's half before powering forward and releasing Ramires to go one on one with Ruddy, who tripped him.
Mike Jones pointed to the spot and reached for a red card, dismissing Ruddy and forcing Declan Rudd (yes, it was confusing) to stop into the game with a penalty to save. He didn't manage it, watching Lampard's effort get blasted straight down the middle to make it 2-1 Chelsea. There's some debate about the legitimacy of the red card, since Ramires wasn't heading straight for goal at the time, but you've seen those given many a time, so I don't think Norwich can have too many complaints.
With Chelsea playing against ten men, Torres was withdrawn, allowing for a Stamford Bridge introduction for Romelu Lukaku, who is as far as I understand is now officially the largest mountain in Britain south of the Scottish border. Like Mata, Lukaku impressed, looking like Drogba on steroids (but decidedly more conscious) as he threw his weight around a panicked Canaries defence.
Several chances were to follow in the twenty minutes that were to follow, with Branislav Ivanovic guilty of missing a sitter in the 89th minute after Mata had release Lampard to send in a peach of a cross. A little while later, Lampard nearly notched another goal after barely losing out to Rudd while chasing down a rebound from a shot by Lukaku. Another goal was needed to put some gloss on the scoreline and close out the game, and in the eleventh minute of injury time, Chelsea got it.
It was, in fact, the latest debutant goal in Premier League history (and only just losing out to Dirk Kuyt's equaliser against Arsenal last season for latest goal full stop), and it was an absolute gift - Ritchie de Laet tried to pass backwards to Rudd, finding only Mata lurking in Norwich's box, leaving the former Valencia man able to curl a shot past the helpless goalkeeper and in at the far post to seal the points for the Blues.
It was a superb way to cap off an impressive first Premier League appearance for Mata, and Lukaku was good as well (although it's hard to gauge the latter's performance, as he came on against ten men). Although it was a very odd game, Chelsea managed to emerge with three points and some real hope that the future will be very bright - and the good news regarding Drogba's injury means we can all be pretty relaxed about what ended up being a nice little win.