Last time Chelsea faced Crystal Palace, they were able to celebrate a first Premier League title after two losses in some 35 matches. Today, they were dealt their second loss in four. While it's difficult to argue that the Blues were outplayed, they nevertheless put themselves in position to lose and were made to pay the price, slipping a hilarious eight points back of Manchester City in the early running.
It was hardly the stuff of champions at Stamford Bridge. The first half was mostly fine, although there were some warning signs of what was to come. Yohan Cabaye scuffed a clear sight of goal right into Thibaut Courtois' legs and the Blues' attack was at best ponderous, but on the whole Chelsea dominated possession and looked the more likely to score. Palace were getting pushed back into their own half and looked unlikely to do much damage, while the Blues had a series of half-chances go begging.
Kurt Zouma might have had a penalty when he was yanked down by Connor Wickham on a corner. Nemanja Matic did an embarrassingly one-footed dance after somehow dribbling his way into the visitors' box. Pedro flashed a neat shot wide. Cesc Fabregas had a ball smuggled off the line be a combination of Scott Dann and Alex McCarthy. It's not like there weren't chances for Chelsea to go in front.
But more symptomatic of the general malaise was a telling incident midway through the half. Chelsea, given the run of the Palace area, twice had the ball on an attacker's foot and twice wasted the chance to shoot, instead working possession back to Gary Cahill, who promptly smashed his effort into the stands from 35 yards. Instead of offering up a cutting edge, the Blues' pricey attackers let a centre back try (and fail) to do their dirty work for him. And Cahill doesn't even have cool hair!
Still, farting around the Palace box without getting anywhere was better than what happened after halftime, whenupon the game devolved into the sort of open affair that results in the entire Chelsea right being hopelessly exposed. Branislav Ivanovic had a hopeless afternoon, consistently making poor decisions two on one, but the fact that he was two on one so often is testament to just how much of a mess we were on defensive transitions. Constantly allowing that overlap was bound to create chances, and the visitors were eventually going to score.
Score they did, although perversely it was just as the attack seemed as though it was about to click into gear. A series of small chances culminated in the ball being cleared off McCarthy's line, but barely had the dust settled at one end than Palace marched up the other. Ivanovic was demolished by another one-two punch, the ball came in and Cesar Azpilicueta blocked Bakary Sako's shot. Which would have been fine had the ball not bounced straight back to Sako, who tucked past Courtois with ease.
Cue panic. Radamel Falcao came on for Willian, who was a walking demonstration of Oscar's value to this team. A far stranger substitution followed, with Azpilicueta replaced by young Kenedy. As a nominal attacking playmaker at left back, Kenedy played ... as an attacking playmaker running from deep, generally impressing going forward if not so much defending. The final change, perhaps a marker of Jose Mourinho's displeasure, saw Ruben Loftus-Cheek on for Nemanja Matic, who was having yet another thoroughly ineffective match.
Chelsea were throwing everyone forward looking for an equaliser, and eventually they found it via the unlikely combination of Pedro and Falcao with 79 minutes gone. The Blues had been struggling with getting men in the box for crosses, but with two up top Pedro was able to swing in a neat delivery for the Colombian to meet at the near post. McCarthy's positioning was dubious, but the finish was not -- the header kissed the back of the net and, for an instance, the match seemed winnable.
Then Palace went up the other end and scored again. Chelsea's attacking changes left them confused at the back -- Zouma was beaten on the ground for a cross, leaving the combination of Kenedy and Eden Hazard rather confused as to their marking assignments. Sako got a touch back into the centre; Joel Ward's header cut any hope of ... well, anything short.
The rest of the match was the standard long-ball fiasco we're used to when trailing late in a game. Although there were chances to claw a goal back, the ball didn't quite bounce Chelsea's way, and the Blues sunk to their second loss of this very young season.
This squad doesn't work right now. The temptation to scapegoat individuals is strong -- Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic are getting a great deal of stick at the moment -- but teams have to function as, well, teams. Everyone needs to up or adapt their game, or we're going nowhere very fast.