Chelsea-Norwich City Preview
The 2015-16 Premier League season is shaping up to be one for the record books for more reasons than one.
Two of the biggest surprises of the season reside in two unlikely places in the table - Leicester City, who were fighting for their Premier League lives at this time last season, currently lead the league, and defending champions Chelsea, who find themselves in unfamiliar territory in 11th place and needing a win at Carrow Road on Tuesday against Norwich City.
Under former manager Jose Mourinho, the Blues lost six matches in the first three months of the season - more than they had lost over all of 2014-15, and felt a managerial change was needed after "The Special One" wore out his welcome, bringing in Guus Hiddink for a second caretaker stint.
That's when things began to turn in the right direction for the defending champs, who have gradually climbed to mid-table. The question is do they have enough left to make a Champions League push after digging themselves such a huge hole?
Since Mourinho was removed following their 2-1 defeat to Leicester in December, the Blues (9-9-9) have gone unbeaten with Hiddink at the helm - a streak that's now reached 11 league matches following their 2-1 win at in-form Southampton on Saturday. Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic scored inside the final 15 minutes to secure all three points after falling behind right before halftime.
The west Londoners enter Tuesday's contest a distant 11 points behind fourth-place Manchester City - and the Citizens have a match in hand - but given the topsy-turvy nature of this season, don't rule out a late-season push from the champs.
"We had a very good win in a difficult stadium considering their performances in the last couple of weeks," Hiddink said. "Of course we have a tight schedule but the team is focused to continue on this path.
"When I started in December we were close to the relegation zone, one point away. Of course this club must have big objectives but it was a side objective to get away from the relegation zone as soon as possible. The team did well with draws and victories so in a relatively short time we've accomplished that in-between target. That encourages us to go on."
Hiddink's side could be without two pivotal figures as Pedro and John Terry are both battling injuries, with concern for the latter being available for Chelsea's second-leg round of 16 Champions League tie versus Paris-St. Germain on March 9."I will see Pedro now, yesterday he was here for treatment," the manager added. 'Normally with these injuries I'm not that positive that it will be resolved in a few days but I need the information from my medical staff. John is touching the pitch with some running and we'll see how he reacts after training this week. I'm a bit cautious because with these injuries there is a danger of setbacks. Regardless of age you must be very careful."
Norwich City (6-6-15) are hovering just above the relegation zone - they narrowly lead Newcastle United on goal difference, though the Magpies have a match in hand - and have gone seven straight without a win (0-1-6) after a demoralising 1-0 defeat at league-leading Leicester City last Saturday. Three points in front of the home crowd will do wonders for Alex Neil's side after their five-man backline nearly nicked a point before conceding Leonardo Ulloa's tally on 89 minutes.
"In recent weeks we've had games where we've been in control of them, but for one reason or another we've let a lead slip or found ourselves on the wrong end of the result," Neil told Norwich City TV. Obviously I'm hoping that it's going to change on Tuesday. If we can get something out of the game then it would be a huge bit of encouragement going into Saturday's match."
The Canaries figure to have their hands full with Chelsea - they've scored just four goals in their last nine league clashes while going 0-2-7 against the Blues since a 3-0 victory Dec. 10, 1994.
Chelsea won the reverse fixture 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on Nov. 21 as Diego Costa scored just past the hour mark.