Chelsea set a new Premier League record last season, spending a grand total of 274 days atop the league table. On Tuesday, the Blues moved back into the top half of that table for the first time since August, holding on to defeat relegation-threatened Norwich City by a 2-1 score.
Throughout the title-winning 2014/15 season and the awful start to the current campaign, former manager Jose Mourinho stuck to the same basic lineup, only making changes when required due to suspension or injury. Rotation was something for other, lesser clubs, and youth were only entrusted with rare appearances in the League Cup, or 30-second, time wasting cameos when Premier League matches were in the bag.
Guus Hiddink has paid the same sort of lip service to rotation and playing the youth, but with a crucial match against PSG coming in eight days time, the interim manager surprised quite a few with his starting eleven. Out were Chelsea regulars John Obi Mikel and Willian, both of whom were rested ahead of knockout ties in the coming weeks. In their places, we saw an opportunity for Nemanja Matic to shake off some rust, and for Bertrand Traore to make his first Premier League start.
Traore wasn't the only youngster given a chance by Hiddink, though, as Baba Rahman was left out of the eleven following his rough showing over the weekend. In his place, Guus went with Kenedy, who has been struggling to find any minutes in a more advanced position, but hasn't looked any worse than one would expect a non-defender to look when thrust in at left back.
Thirty-nine seconds into the match, Guus Hiddink looked like a genius.
Chelsea have spent the better part of the past 15 years looking lethal on the counter, and Tuesday's opener was a textbook example of decisive counter-attacking play. When Traore gained possession inside of Chelsea's half, he calmly tapped the ball to Cesc Fabregas in space, who didn't need a second touch to set Eden Hazard free. Hazard then played the ball wide to Kenedy, who did something Chelsea players have rarely done this season, running straight at the heart of the defense, thus forcing them to make quick decisions.
The Brazilian cut in from the left, running right by the Norwich fullback, who promptly passed the youngster off to his teammates. Once inside the fullback, however, the 20-year old switched the ball back to his preferred left foot, before firing a low rocket past the diving John Ruddy into the corner of the net. It was the Blues' fastest goal this season, and the first ever Premier League strike for Kenedy.
I'd have expected the early goal to quiet some nerves for Chelsea, but instead, we were treated to a chaotic first thirty minutes of end to end stuff. Chelsea came close on quite a few occasions, but their final balls were often just a bit off the mark, or on the occasions in which they were perfect, a loose touch would let Chelsea down. Norwich, meanwhile, were being undone by the awful finishing of Cameron Jerome, who had several excellent opportunities to level the match that he wasted in hilarious fashion.
Midway through the first half, referee Lee Mason gave the home fans a reason to boo. When a Gary Cahill pass (apparently) took the the slightest of deflections off of Jerome, Thibaut Courtois took a few touches before picking it up and starting the attack. It looked to be a pretty questionable decision, but unlike basically every call early in the season, this one went in Chelsea's favor.
The back pass wasn't the only bad refereeing decision in the first half, as the Blues got a controversial second goal just before the whistle. When Traore took possession following a Chelsea throw in the Norwich end, the Canaries' back line stepped up, leaving Diego Costa well offside. Fortunately, the linesman missed this very easy call, and when Traore's pass left the forward one on one with Ruddy, he calmly chipped home to send the Blues to the break with a two goal advantage.
Hiddink made no changes to start the second half, but after a very lackluster start, the interim manager decided to turn to a pair of trusted veterans. Mikel and Willian were both brought on at the hour mark, with Traore and Oscar making way. Unfortunately, the Blues remained on the back foot, and Nathan Redmond made it 2-1 with just over 20 minutes left to play.
Guus used his final substitution in hopes of tightening up the defense, ironically bringing Baba on for makeshift left back, Kenedy. While that change didn't help Chelsea find any more urgency, or take control of the match, they managed to hang on thanks to some more sloppy finishing, and a pair of nice stops from Thibaut Courtois.
With the win, the Blues now sit eighth in the Premier League table, though they could drop back to eleventh depending on results tomorrow. Far more importantly, the victory puts Chelsea 15 points ahead of 18th-placed Norwich, and with the Champions League places still well out of reach, leaves Hiddink with very little reason not to continue rotating the squad, and giving more chances to the youth.