Norwich City 1-3 Chelsea: Substitutes to the rescue as Blues avoid more road woes (Video)

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Norwich fought back in the second half to level the score, but Chelsea win the day as substitutes Eden Hazard and Willian score quickfire goals late to give Jose Mourinho his first away win of the season at Carrow Road on Sunday.

Chelsea fans will be breathing a sigh of relief after it looked they’d be once again held in check away from Stamford Bridge.

The visitors struck early to stun Norwich and set the tone. The third minute saw a fantastic long ball from behind the mid line find the feet of Ba in the box.  The striker brilliantly pirouetted and laid off to Oscar who couldn’t miss the far corner.

The Brazilian’s hot start to the season continues as he picked up his fourth goal of the season in all competitions.

Ba nearly grabbed Chelsea’s second in the 13th minute from a very tight angle but Norwich keeper John Ruddy made a diving save to deny.  The English netminder is seeking to impress his international boss Roy Hodgson in order to take advantage of fellow countryman Joe Hart’s poor form and see a chance in the upcoming qualifiers.

The Senegalese striker proved an imposing physical presence early, something Chelsea has been missing up front to start the year.  His strength and skill on the ball will certainly have impressed Jose Mourinho, who is looking for consistency up front.

Norwich, however, slowly worked to press back into the game, and finished the first half strong in the attacking half.

They continued their good play into the second half, and it nearly paid dividends early.  In the 59th minute, the ball came in from the midfield to Robert Snodgrass at the top of the box, whose first touch popped over to van Wolfswinkel in the middle.  The Dutch striker attempted to get to the ball, but John Terry’s physical challenge prevented him from doing so. Van Wolfswinkel appealed for a penalty, but referee Neil Swarbrick waved off the shouts.

source: Reuters
Anthony Pilkington’s header appeared for much of the second half to be the breakthrough Norwich needed to secure points.

They would be vindicated in the 68th minute when Anthony Pilkington brought them level. The ball came into the right side of the box, and with the flick of his head van Wolfswinkel did well to direct it into a dangerous area.  Pilkington was there waiting, and beat David Luiz in the air – not a small task – to head home past Cech.

The goal opened things up a bit, but the Norwich defense clamped down and held as Chelsea could muster few serious chances to go back ahead.  Things were looking bleak until the 85th minute, when the Canaries did eventually break to the fresh legs off the Chelsea bench.

First, Eden Hazard came on for an injured Ashley Cole after the equalizer, and it proved dividends.  Again, a long ball on the counter did the trick, this time in the 85th minute.  Oscar, playing on the wing much of the night as he rotated with Juan Mata, played in Hazard who beat Alexander Tettey back and got the ball to trickle over the line after Ruddy got a touch.

The lead was solidified just a single minute later, when Willian opened his Premier League account with a stunning curling effort from outside the box, leaving Ruddy with no chance and Chelsea with a 3-1 lead.

The win propels Chelsea up into third place for the time being, with Arsenal and Tottenham still to play.  For Norwich, they will be ruing not maintaining a hold on the point it took them much of the match to recover, and they remain in 17th place with seven points.

GOALS:

Norwich City – Pilkington 68′
Chelsea –
Oscar 4′, Hazard 85′, Willian 86′

LINEUPS:

Norwich City – Ruddy; Martin, Bassong, Turner, Olsson; Howson, Tetty, Fer; Pilkington, Snodgrass (Redmond, 81′); van Wolfswinkel (Hooper, 73′).

Chelsea – Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole (Hazard, 75′); Ramires, Lampard; Oscar, Mata (Willian, 81′), Schurrle; Ba (Eto’o, 73′).

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.