So. Chelsea thumped -- and I mean thumped by any standards, not just on this season's more dubious scale -- Crystal Palace 3-0, at Selhurst Park. That's the same Crystal Palace who could have gone 5th in the table with a victory today, and the same Crystal Palace who gave the Blues a horrifying home defeat in the reverse fixture. Sure, Alan Pardew had to deal with some injuries, but there wasn't much reason to hope for more than a tight win. A rampant performance felt entirely out of the question.
One arrived regardless. It was, perhaps, somewhat aided by the awful conditions. The ridiculously wet pitch helped nobody, but it perhaps hindered Palace more than the Blues. The hosts wanted to play a quick counterattacking game, but it was so difficult to play long breakout passes that they never quite got their rhythm sorted. Chelsea seemed a little skittish to start, but it's difficult to be actively afraid of an opponent that keeps punting passes into touch whenever they start looking at all threatening*.
*Although one of those punts appeared quite threatening to Cesar Azpilicueta's face and short-term memory.
The most dangerous moments came from set pieces. Frazier Campbell should have had done better after John Terry missed an inswinging corner, but fortunately he failed to react and allowed Kurt Zouma to clear. Zouma was also instrumental in dealing with the next chance with a brilliant, last-ditch tackle on Wilfried Zaha, which more than made up for the fact that it was Zouma forgetting what quick free kicks were that set the winger free in the first place.
At the other end of the pitch, Eden Hazard looked lively for about 10 minutes before appearing to tweak his groin on a long-range shot and eventually quitting the match entirely. Last year seeing him trudge down the tunnel would have been a traumatic sight. This time the Blues got on with it.
There had been intermittent flashes of danger at the heart of the Palace defence. Cesc Fabregas, back from illness, seemed more forceful than usual, perhaps reassured by the presence of professional safety blanket and all-around hero John Obi Mikel* to his rear. His attempts to dissect the pairing of Scott Dann and Damien Delaney were initially defended well, but it's impossible to deal with that sort of constant probing from midfield for long. The Chelsea goal was coming, and duly arrived in the 29th minute.
*More on him later.
Fabregas, thwarted in his attempts to go between the centre halves, led Diego Costa outside them instead. Delaney read the run to his left late, reacting to finding himself in no-man's land by falling over, and Costa barrelled down on goal. Wayne Hennessey and the Palace defence braced for a tight-angle shot, so instead the striker simply fed the ball to Oscar, who swept home unmarked from inside the six-yard box.
The goal was a triumph of simple, smart play, and exactly the sort of thing that's been missing for the past forever. Moments later and we might have doubled our advantage when Cesar Azpilicueta's romp down the touchline went unnoticed by the hosts but not by Oscar, who sent the left back clean through only for Hennessey to make a slightly awkward stop.
In the Chelsea we've known so far this season, that sort of miss when up by a goal might have proved fatal, giving the opposition hope when we needed to be crushing it. Here, it meant nothing of the sort. Having started the match well, the central midfield duo of Mikel and Fabregas took things to even new heights for the rest of the match. Alan Pardew claimed that his side “couldn't get near” the latter as he seized control of the game, but whenever Palace did have the ball Mikel was on hand to mop up and set Chelsea going again.
If you'll forgive a brief and possibly tortured aside, I think Mikel's ability to shield the ball deserves one. His performance against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final, when his stewardship of the football constituted a ridiculous fraction of Chelsea's total possession, is of course unforgettable, but he was just as good here, albeit against vastly inferior opposition. Watching Palace's midfielders bounce off him like small children playing rugby against a wall was a delight.
With the back six at the top of their game, there was little doubt that 1-0 would be enough to win. The hosts did forge another chance when Zaha squirmed free and shot tamely at a largely bored (and very wet) Thibaut Courtois, but even that opportunity arrived thanks to a piece of refereeing largesse when a foul on Costa on the left touchline went ignored.
Meanwhile, Chelsea were opening up an increasingly dispirited-looking Palace defence. Their probing, incisive play was, however, not generating much in terms of clear looks on goal. Willian solved that problem by making the most of a not-so-clear one. Fabregas slid a neat pass forward to Oscar, who was bundled over on the edge of the box but still managed to get the ball to his international teammate, whose first time, 25-yard strike kissed the bottom of the bar before finding the back of the net. In a season of superb Willian goals, this was perhaps the pick of the lot, and certainly a moment to savour.
Not that we had much time to savour it, because less than six minutes later the Blues had scored again. This time Willian was the provider, springing free inside the box and hitting a half-shot, half pass towards the far post. With the ball creeping in, Hennessey needed to make a stop, but couldn't do much more than parry it right into Costa's path, and so it was bundled in despite a heroic attempt at intervention from Palace right back Joel Ward.
At 3-0 with 25 minutes to play, the match was clearly over and the Eagles were mostly expending their energy in the hope that the score wouldn't get any more embarrassing. Even when they had the chance to do some damage they failed to make the most of it -- at one point, leading a four on three counterattack, Zaha ran right into Mikel in midfield and promptly coughed up possession. Chelsea were in a much more comfortable position, so their varied and amusing efforts to spurn chances brought smiles rather than screams from the Blues faithful, and don't need to be catalogued here.
So. A good start to 2016, albeit from an awful position in the league. Now it's time to press on and see if we can turn this pleasant little awakening into a real run up the table.