OLIVIER GIROUD is nothing if not persistent, and the French striker kept going after a string of missed chances to score the game’s only goal and keep Chelsea on course to finish third.
Giroud had a reputation as a flat-track bully at Arsenal, when he would score freely against lesser sides but struggle against the best in England and Europe, and he certainly had enough chances to fill his boots at Stamford Bridge against a Norwich side with nothing to play for but pride, having been relegated last week.
But it is never as easy as it appears against the so-called whipping boys of the division, and the two teams were only separated by a single strike, Giroud’s diving header in first-half stoppage time.
The opening exchanges were predictable enough, with Chelsea having most of the possession and advancing patiently on the Norwich goal. Giroud had two decent opportunities and a half chance in before he opened the scoring, but lobbed one shot straight at Tim Krul, mis-hit the second horribly wide and failed to make enough contact on the third.
But he kept plugging away and finally made the breakthrough in first-half stoppage time, unable to miss from five yards with a diving header, when Christian Pulisic put in a pinpoint cross that Timm Klose, Giroud’s marker, failed to deal with.
The Frenchman celebrated his fourth goal since the resumption, twice as many as he had managed in the Premier League up to March. Tammy Abraham was the main man earlier in the season, but the young England striker’s form has deserted him in recent weeks, with only two goals this year, and he was one of five changes made by Frank Lampard from Saturday’s disastrous 3-0 defeat at Sheffield United.
The Chelsea manager has been a champion of his side’s academy players for most of the season, but Mason Mount,Andreas Christensen and Reece James were also axed as Lampard went for a more tried and tested group of players, including Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho in midfield.
One player who has been a constant presence and threat since football’s resumption has been Pulisic, and the American winger brought out the best in Krul with a vicious volley on the turn that the Dutch keeper did well to tip over in the 36th minute.
It looked like the Premier League’s whipping boys, rock bottom and already relegated, were going to thwart Lampard’s ambitions, although Chelsea hardly helped themselves with their lack of a cutting edge, certainly in the first-half.
There was precious little chance of Norwich pulling off a shock result though, because they never looked like scoring. Daniel Farke dropped Teemu Pukki and played Josip Drnic as a lone striker, with little support from midfield. Youngsters Todd Cantwell, Ben Godfrey, Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis impressed, and it would be no surprise to see them back in the top flight next season, albeit with new employers.
Cantwell, in particular, was throwing himself into every challenge and also showed some neat touches going forwards, and was hacked down by Kovacic, whose booking followed Kurt Zouma’s yellow card in a shot spell around the hour mark when Norwich briefly threatened to make life difficult for their hosts.
Still Chelsea had the best of the chances. Giroud thumped a header wide from a corner, just as Zouma had done before the break, and then looped another header over the bar. Cesar Azpilicueta curled a half-hearted shot too high, and Willian had a drive deflected over the bar.
Krul was finally called into action again twice in the space of two minutes in the final quarter, diving low to keep out a Pulisic flick, and then bundling away a close range header from Marcos Alonso.
Lampard’s nerves were apparent on the touchline, and he made a rash of substitutions, not least replacing Giroud with Abraham after the Frenchman missed yet another chance. But the one opportunity he put away was enough to secure three points and may just have earned Chelsea a place in the Champions League next season.
CHELSEA 4-3-3 Arrizabalaga 6; Azpilicueta 6, Rudiger 6, Zouma 7, Alonso 6 (James 86); Loftus-Cheek 7 (Barkley 66), Jorginho 6, Kovacic 6; Willian 7, Giroud 7, Pulisic 7.
NORWICH 4-5-1 Krul 8; Aarons 6, Godfrey 7, Klose 6, Lewis 6; Cantwell 7 (Buendia 71), Tettey 6, Rupp 6 (Martin 89), McLean, Hernandez (Idah 78), Drmic 5 (Pukki 78)