Chelsea replaced elan with cold-eyed efficiency as they suppressed Norwich in the latest chapter of the their resurgence under Rafael Benitez. There was precious little of the flamboyance with which they had dismembered Aston Villa just three days earlier, but plenty of the manager's customary emphasis on discipline as Juan Mata's superb first-half goal ensured they cemented their grip on third place in the Premier League.
The rancour that characterised the first days of Benitez's tenure appeared long forgotten as Chelsea secured a third straight league win to carry them within four points of Manchester City in second. Mata's wonderful strike illuminated a game often bereft of attacking flair, while Norwich discovered that the heady performances of recent weeks at last caught up with them. They did not force Petr Cech into a noteworthy save all match.
Chelsea's players seemed a more organised collective than at any point this season, while even their fans sounded subdued, chanting 'Super Frank' in honour of substitute Frank Lampard from first whistle to last. Lampard, finally called into action in the 73rd minute after a knee injury to John Obi Mikel, could leave Stamford Bridge as early as next month as the club give him permission to talk to other suitors.
The likelihood is that Lampard will wait until next summer to join the Los Angeles Galaxy, understood to be his preferred destination, although Benitez refused to be drawn last night into any discussion about the
midfielder's contract. "It's very easy," he said. "It's a private conversation between Frank and the club, and that's it. He's a player who is under contract, he's a good player, and I will try to bring the best from him. That is my position."
Benitez instead wished to concentrate on the manner of this valuable victory, every bit as satisfying to this connoisseur of the defensive arts as the 8-0 filleting of Villa. "It's important to see the team working hard and working well," he said. "We could manage, we could control, we had another clean sheet - and all of this against a good team. We are defending but we are creating, too."
Those mutinous renegades among the Chelsea fanbase, who would throw abuse at Benitez at every opportunity, now seem strangely quiescent. The Spaniard, with the exception of defeat in the Club World Cup revival, has engineered a rapid revival that even prompted supporters to sing nostalgically yesterday about their status as European champions.
With Fernando Torres' influence limited, no player was more central to Chelsea's work against Norwich than Mata. The striker experienced a brief dip in form in the dying embers of Roberto di Matteo's reign but here he was a player transformed, propelling the side's forward thrust and fashioning an exquisite finish to confirm his standing as one of the league's most luminous performers. "He has clever movement," Benitez said. "He can play high, he can play deeper, he can go into the right spaces. He always makes it difficult for the defenders or the midfielders."
Mata's flourish was a long time coming. After an attritional first half-an-hour, David Luiz, weaving his creative influence from the back of midfield, finally enabled Chelsea to gain some semblance of rhythm. Piercing the Norwich defence with a typically instinctive pass, he set Mata free for a clear sight of goal, but the 24 year-old struggled to plant his feet correctly and succeeded only in scuffing his shot into the side-netting.
Luiz again played his part in setting up John Obi Mikel, whose fearsome drive was beautifully struck but always flying fractionally over the bar. The breakthrough, when it arrived, was worth the wait. Mata, picked out neatly by Oscar, found space in an area thronged with yellow jerseys and with a minimum of backlift fired the ball comfortably beyond Mark Bunn for a stunning goal.
Only Benitez looked unmoved. From the technical area there came not a flicker of reaction. While Bunn might have been slow to react, no goalkeeper in the league stood a chance in the face of Mata's cultured left boot. In any case, he excelled himself early in the second half, scrambling away Victor Moses' effort with his body after the striker met Oscar's corner with a glancing header.
Norwich were restricted to the most fleeting counterattacks. Grant Holt had the best of the chances, running clear of Cesar Azpilicueta before dragging his finish wide of the far post from an offside position.
Elsewhere, Robert Snodgrass merely embarrassed himself by going to ground without a hint of contact from Branislav Ivanovic. When Bradley Johnson then tried the same trick under pressure from Luiz, referee Jon Moss did not hesitate in booking him.
Manager Chris Hughton, digesting back-to-defeats and a rare toothless showing by his players, still could not find fault with Norwich's total of 25 points at the halfway stage. "I think if you had offered that to me at the start of the season then yes, I certainly would have taken it," he said.
Norwich, with their weaknesses up front, could yet endure a struggle for Premier League survival. But for Chelsea, now 11 points behind the leaders Manchester United with a game in hand, the trajectory con-tinues ever upwards.