NORWICH: Chelsea coach Rafael Benitez praised Juan Mata after his winner at Norwich City took the London club to within four points of second-place Manchester City in the Premier League.
The Spain midfielder claimed his 13th goal of the season seven minutes before half-time at Carrow Road on Wednesday to decide a contest that lacked many other goal-scoring opportunities.
“Mata is a player who is very dangerous getting into the box and also outside the box, so we are very pleased with him,” said Benitez, who had seen his players humble Aston Villa 8-0 in their previous game.
“He is in form and the team is too, as we have now won three games in a row. He is doing really well. Even without the ball, he is working really hard and when we are in possession, he is making a difference.
“He is clever and has clever movements. He can play deeper, can go to the right into spaces, and that is hard for the midfielders and the defenders to manage.
“The Premier League has a lot of good players and Mata is one of the best, for sure.”
Benitez was less clear about a pre-match newspaper report that had claimed that England international Frank Lampard has been told he can leave the club next month instead of at the end of the season, when his contract expires.
“From my position, it is very easy – it is a private conversation between Frank and the club,” said the Spaniard, an interim replacement for the sacked Roberto Di Matteo.
“That's it. He is a player who is under contract, he is a good player and I will try to bring the best from him. That is my position.”
Chelsea also possess a game in hand over Manchester City, who are Norwich's visitors on Saturday, and Benitez was confident the Premier League holders could be overhauled, although current leader Manchester United still possess an 11-point cushion.
“We are in a good position,” he said.
“It could be better. I feel we have done well in the last month – we are growing and progressing. We can manage different types of games and still get results, which could be really important.
“We saw the other day (against Villa) we can play football, but in this game, we showed we can defend in difficult conditions.”
Benitez had dropped Lampard to the bench and did not bring him on until the 79th minute, but this was to get the most out of John Obi Mikel before he and Victor Moses leave for the Africa Cup of Nations in a few days' time.
“With the African Cup coming, I knew Obi could give us fresh legs and I had to manage it,” he said.
Despite the defeat, Norwich currently occupy 11th place in the Premier League table and their points total of 25 is at least 10 more than any of the bottom three.
“If you had offered that to me at the start of the season, I would certainly have taken it,” said manager Chris Hughton, who saw his side's 10-game unbeaten run ended by a 2-1 loss at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
“You only have to look at the Premier League week in, week out and see the results, and that emphasises what a good run we went on.
“What I have been pleased with is that we had a really tough game at West Brom against a side that have been doing well and then against a side with real quality, and managed to make them really tight games.
“We lost them by one goal and in both we possibly could have got more.
“There's no points target – it's about producing what we did in the first half of the season, when we started slowly and then went on a good run. We know what we have to do to get the points that we need.”