Q: What happens when we don't have Diego Costa?
A: We win anyway.
Crystal Palace away is a trap game. All London derbies, in fact, are trap games, even the ones involving smaller clubs. Fulham away, West Ham away, QPR away ... we've dropped points in all of them, and with alarming regularity at that. But Palace are something else. Selhurst Park is where Chelsea lost the title last season, and while a loss today wouldn't have been the end of the world, it sure would have brought the soaring Blues back down to earth.
There were storms on the horizon even before kickoff. Diego Costa has been the focal point of Chelsea's attack this season, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the squad entirely. Without Costa, could the Blues break down a tight-knit defence? Jose Mourinho famously said that his players lacked balls against the Eagles last March, and in lieu of Costa providing 22 on his own, the onus was on the eleven to demonstrate the required number of testicles this time around.
And so they did. The match had barely started before Oscar curled a peach of a free kick over the wall and past the flabbergasted Julian Speroni, giving the Blues the lead in the sixth minute. Sure, Palace had already given us a few scares with the rather direct tactic of lumping the ball long and hoping Frazier Campbell would torch Gary Cahill (which happened three times in the first 15 minutes), but other than that Chelsea were in complete control and all was looking hunky-dory.
Apart from the second goal. While the Blues had possession, they weren't creating particularly good chances, and the aforementioned Campbell was causing Cahill enough problems that we couldn't be entirely comfortable with just the one goal advantage. Cesc Fabregas was being pretty well marked out of the match, which meant that we basically had Willian, Eden Hazard and Oscar trying to break down a packed defence by themselves (John Terry, making his 500th appearance as captain, did his best, but he saw his goal-bound header cleared off the line). They made progress, sure, but it wasn't as easy as we'd have liked.
Then, in the span of five minutes, the match was turned upside down. Damien Delaney, responsible for the foul on Willian that led to Oscar's goal, had picked up a booking for a foul on Loïc Rémy around the half hour mark, setting the stage for one of the more remarkable spells of refereeing we've seen all year. First, Cesar Azpilicueta attempted to make up for a bad touch by stealing the ball off Mile Jedinak, launching himself into the tackle with such enthusiasm that both feet came off the ground and planted themselves into the Australian's ankle.
It was a red card, and not a particularly contentious red card at that (although it did spark a confrontation between Fabregas and Campbell which could easily have seen both of those players dismissed too). And Chelsea, obviously, were in some trouble. Down to 10 men, the Blues were going to have to entire more than a half of pressure from Palace, which is not a recipe for success. But then Delaney went and got himself sent off too, hauling down Rémy again and collecting his second booking of the afternoon.
10 versus 10 meant far more open space. That suited Chelsea, who nearly added to their lead via Nemanja Matic, who missed a free header just before the break. It didn't take long for the second to arrive, but it would have been worth any wait -- Mourinho called it the best of the season, and it was indeed an absolute peach. Fabregas started and finished the move, but full credit must be apportioned to both Hazard and Oscar, who each played a magnificent one-two with the midfielder as he danced into the Palace box. All that was left was the finish, and Fabregas made it look easy, slipping a shot past Speroni at the near post.
At 2-0, the game seemed won, and Chelsea were then happy to pass the ball around and let the hosts spend energy chasing. There were chances to add to the lead and pad the goal differential, but with the players tired after internationals and facing a busy schedule, there didn't seem to be much point expending further energy, and nobody tried too hard to get that third goal.
Which made Palace scoring slightly concerning. Neil Warnock had brought Wilfried Zaha on to cause the Blues problem down the flanks, and with two minutes of left to play the Manchester United midfielder scampered through Filipe Luis, whose tackle ended up going right back to the winger, then slipped a pass between Terry's legs for Campbell to convert. Thibaut Courtois, who'd been solid all match, was left to rue the disappearance of what would have been a third straight clean sheet, and the goal also cost Dom Solanke his Chelsea debut -- the youngster had been warming up to come on but at 2-1 Mourinho decided not to risk it, sending Drogba on in his place instead.
But apart from Courtois' statistics, our collective nerves and Solanke's big moment, the goal didn't mean much. Chelsea were still in charge, and they saw our the four minutes of stoppage time in thoroughly assured fashion. 2-1, three points, and we head into Old Trafford top of the league.