The last few weeks have not made for the happiest times at Chelsea, with plenty of questions being raised from all angles, about anything from tactics and results to transfers and ambitions, from three consecutive 0-0 draws for the first time in the club’s 112-year history, to whoever thought spending money on Andy Carroll would be a good idea. Facing a mid-table second division side, Chelsea’s B-squad had a chance to make us forget about a lot of these concerns. Alas, they largely failed to do so, even after ending our goalscoring drought, being on the receiving end of refereeing injustices, providing a bit of drama with a penalty kick shootout, and advancing into the FA Cup 4th round for the 20th consecutive season.
Given the never-ending deluge of fixtures, popping up mercilessly and ceaselessly every 3-4 days on the calendar, Antonio Conte once again opted to rotate his lineup, just as he’s done for every early-round Cup match since taking over as Chelsea head coach 18 months. That meant a return of the 3-4-3 formation, lead by the attacking line of Willian, Batshuayi and Pedro, shielded with the presence of César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Ethan Ampadu, and back-stopped by veteran goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero. In the middle of the park, midfielders Tiemoué Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater were flanked by Davide Zappacosta on the right and Kenedy on the opposite side.
Meanwhile, Norwich manager and Jürgen Klopp understudy Daniel Farke made three changes from the eleven players picked to face the Blues in our first encounter. The midfield duo of Alexander Tettey and Tom Trybull gave way to Mario Vrancic and Harrison Reed. And with pacy winger Alex Pritchard moving up the ranks to join Huddersfield and another Klopp trainee, David Wagner in the Premier League, Portuguese centre-forward Nélson Oliveira earned a chance to start.
The most noticeable thing at kickoff, delayed 15 minutes thanks to issues on the District line, was the rare sight of Stamford Bridge not in full attendance, as Norwich did not sell out their allocation for the Shed End. The second most noticeable thing was the visitors clad in their classic yellow and green, flocking towards our goal like vicious human-sized
ducklings canaries smelling an opportunity to peck at open sores.
Their plan was almost the same as it was in the first match, with their three-man front line matching our three-man back line as they looked to press, harass, and maybe find a morsel of reward. Ampadu, making his fifth Chelsea appearance at the ripe old age of 17, showed a bit of trouble in handling this at first, but once Chelsea settled into the game this was no longer a pressing issue.
At times Chelsea have not been able to settle quickly at all, but that was not an issue in this game. As Norwich put men behind the ball in two banks of four, Chelsea established lots of patient possession — reaching at peak at 68 per cent, 22 minutes into the game — while the likes of Willian, Pedro, Kenedy and Zappacosta were also able to create dangerous situations through their pace and direct running. Perhaps the only player not quite doing his part was Michy Batshuayi, showing many of the usual faults in his game even with West Ham’s David Moyes in the crowd supposedly scouting him.
Chelsea’s finishing, a major issue recently, continued to haunt us as well, with only 3 shots on target from 13 first-half efforts.
Following a 30-minute display of complete but goalless dominance, the pace slowed and Norwich’s hoofball started to pay off into a few chances. That said, their best effort was thanks to a direct giveaway from Michy, whose pass back only found the Norwich center forward. His long-range effort was deflected onto the crossbar by Caballero, just a few minutes after Angus Gunn pulled the same trick on Danny Drinkwater in the Norwich goal.
Both teams were ready for the half-time break, though there was still time for Kenedy, arguably Chelsea’s best player on the night, to show off some his tricks and skills. The day after Ronaldinho retired, here was Kenedy killing the ball with a tremendous first-touch before stealing Norwich captain Ivo Pinto’s soul with a nutmeg. His countryman would’ve certainly been proud.
Chelsea got back on the front foot after returning from the dressing room, and we didn’t have to wait too long to finally break the club’s goalless streak that had stretched beyond five (5!) hours.
Unsurprisingly, Kenedy was key as Batshuayi opened the scoring on 55 minutes. It was a classic poacher’s goal from the otherwise quiet Michy, but as we’ve seen over the past few games, sometimes goals are the hardest to come by.
Kenedy started the move with a throw-in his left flank, Willian returned the ball to his younger countryman who then played an inch-perfect low cross into the penalty box. Norwich cleared many of those in the game, but this one found a Chelsea boot. For a heart-stopping moment it seemed like Batshuayi was going to miss, but he roofed it with authority instead.
With the scoreline now giving Chelsea the 4th round advance, Norwich decided it was time to no longer play as bystanders. And to their credit, they did manage to bring some heat to Chelsea’s defence, though their best chances came from individual mistakes from Caballero (whose horrid attempt at defending an oncoming cross was saved by an Ampadu deflection onto the post) and Drinkwater (who simply gave the ball away). In fairness, the latter gave Caballero a chance to make amends with a beautiful save to keep the Blues in the lead.
After Chelsea weather this response from Norwich, the game became comfortable once again for the hosts, who really should’ve put Norwich to bed, but a succession of missed chances — following the introductions of Morata, Christensen, and Kanté for Batshuayi, Ampadu, and Kenedy, respectively — ensured the advantage remained a most narrow one. (The Ampadu and Kenedy substitutions were both forced by fitness issues.)
The feeling that everything could still go awry at the last minute was growing with every passing minute. And sure enough, with the final kick of regulation, Norwich found a friendly head in Chelsea’s penalty area.
”Magic of the Cup”, many will proclaim, though there was nothing magical about giving acres of space to a centre-back to put in a cross and allow tiny left-back Jamal Lewis to head the ball free and uncontested for his first professional goal.
To extra time we went.
Normal service resumed in extra-time, as Norwich sat back and played for penalties while Chelsea tried to force the issue. Not that we had much choice with Pedro at left back and fresh legs at center forward. Unfortunately, normal service also meant tons of missed chances, with both Morata and Willian equally guilty. Manchester City loanee Angus Gunn wasn’t doing himself any disservice in the Norwich goal either of course.
Still, his efforts should have been for naught just two minutes into bonus football, when Willian was fouled in the area. The referee, whose true star turn was yet to come, decided to book the Chelsea man for a dive instead even as replay after replay confirmed the contact and the foul.
Good thing this match utilized the much-hyped VAR system, right? Wrong. The decision stood and madness ensued.
After Bakayoko's flick plays him in, Willian takes a touch past his defender but is caught by his lunging challenge. The ref booked him for diving but there appeared to be contact. Unfortunately, it didn't make it to VAR. 1-1. #CFC pic.twitter.com/95tHmTa6XO— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) January 17, 2018
As the game slowly but surely wound down towards penalties, desperation grew. Chelsea pushed forward with Norwich hoping to spring a telling counter. With just a few minutes left in the second extra period, they did just that, forcing Pedro into a slide-tackle from behind. He missed and was deservedly booked. Unfortunately for him, he had been booked earlier already for a blatant dive and so off he went for the second time this season and the second time in his career. Weird.
And there was more drama to come before the penalties themselves, as Morata was next to get booked for a dive — questionable decision, at best — and then quickly booked again for presumably shouting at the referee all the bad words a mother would be ashamed of hearing from his son and/or asking him to consult his VAR. And so off he went as well, reducing Chelsea to just nine-men for the shootout.
(Ed.note: on the plus side, we didn’t have to face the psychological gauntlet of Morata taking a penalty.)
For how bad Chelsea had been in general through both games of this third round FA Cup tie, the quality displayed in the shootout was surprising and most welcome. Willian, David Luiz, Azpilicueta, Kanté and Eden all converted without a problem. Caballero saved Norwich’s first attempt and that was that.
Chelsea are through to face Rafael Benítez’s Newcastle a week from Sunday in the fourth round!
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