When was the last time Chelsea won 11 straight Premier League games in a single season? Well, yes, today. But before that? Never. The Blues’ winning run has gone from impressive to barely-precedented, and although there was some talk of Crystal Palace being able to end it in the Selhurst mist, in the end Alan Pardew and friends couldn’t. Nor did they come particularly close.
1-0 flattered Palace. Although Chelsea failed to get many shots away for much of the first half and had to endure a slightly concerning sequence in the second, they were comfortably the better side, never letting their hosts get anywhere near goal and inflicting a frankly cruel amount of stress upon Wayne Hennessey. A snatched volley from Christian Benteke aside, Palace were reliant on a handful of free kicks for their attempts on goal. They went about as well as one might expect from a team that thinks Andros Townsend is a set piece specialist.
Despite scoring the winner at Sunderland, Cesc Fabregas was dropped to the bench in favour of the more muscular Nemanja Matic. So too was Pedro, although he’d probably have been as pleased as the rest of us to see Eden Hazard back in action following a forced one-match absence through injury. Otherwise it was business as usual in the 3-4-3.
Chelsea failed to create much in the first half and so will probably be remembered as relatively impotent, but Palace spent much of their time scrambling, and it was only thanks to some bad luck and timely fouling that the Blues didn’t find their way to goal sooner. Diego Costa and Hazard combined well but couldn’t quite find the final ball, N’Golo Kante managed to completely fluff his lines on the counterattack with Willian in the clear, and the one time that Chelsea’s quick passing was set to send Hazard clear the Belgian found himself hauled back by Joel Ward.
It’s true that a number of players weren’t at their best. Victor Moses in particular looked tired in perhaps his worst performance since being introduced to the starting lineup, but Willian and Kante seemed to delight in misplacing passes in vaguely dangerous areas. Fortunately those giveaways didn’t do Palace very much good, although the hosts did manage to give us one first half scare through Martin Kelly.
With Marcos Alonso tracking Wilfried Zaha inside and Hazard pushing into midfield, Kelly’s right-wing run went untracked and was expertly picked out by Yohan Cabaye. With nobody within range to make a challenge, Kelly had time to find Jason Puncheon with a smart cutback. Fortunately, Eevee’s angriest evolution had his feet completely wrong for the shot, and his effort trickled daintily beyond Thibaut Courtois’ far post.
Puncheon’s miss was followed by an actual blow to Chelsea, this one inflicted by referee Jonathan Moss. Costa had been one booking away from a suspension for months, and he finally got it — perhaps not undeservedly — after clipping Joe Ledley* on the halfway line. As a result, he’ll be missing the match against Bournemouth. Perhaps that’s his Christmas present to poor Michy Batshuayi.
*This is my only chance to point out that Joe Ledley looks like he’s the lead actor in a film about a man whose only friend is a moose.
Costa’s Christmas present to Antonio Conte was rather more fun. With a trail of blood exploring the side of his face, the result of an accidental kick from James McArthur, the big forward rose into the fog to meet Cesar Azpilicueta’s early cross. The finish was beautiful, a looping header that left Hennessey stranded and Damien Delaney falling into his own net in a futile attempt to clear.
Route one had succeeded where the intricate stuff had failed, and Chelsea went into halftime a goal to the good. They might have added another soon after the restart with Kante trying his luck from 20 yards, but his vicious effort was too close to Hennessey, who was just able able to deal with it.
That shot actually sparked a set of sustained pressure from the hosts, who found themselves controlling midfield and able to play the ball a little too high up the flanks for anyone to feel entirely comfortable. Palace’s surge* brought on another suspension, with Kante booked for persistent fouling. He too will miss Chelsea’s Boxing Day fixture against Bournemouth.
*At one point during all this Moses threw the ball straight out of play for a corner, which I’d be surprised to hear has ever happened in a Premier League game before.
After watching Palace try to bludgeon their way back into the game for ten minutes or so, Antonio Conte decided he’d had enough. 3-4-3 was out, 3-5-2 was in and Fabregas was the man to wrest control back from the hosts. He played his role to perfection and Chelsea embarked on their best spell of the match.
Fabregas’s first touch was a panic-inflicting nutmeg. His second set up Alonso for a penalty-spot volley that the wingback couldn’t quite guide home. Kante was the next Blue to try his luck, forcing a very nice one-handed save from Hennessey with a low shot following good work by Moses, who managed to waste the best chance of all by falling on his face when played clean through by Hazard.
The Palace defence could barely cope. Fabregas too let a fine opportunity go to waste, squirrelling a shot down Hennessey’s throat from the edge of the area, and almost-scorer turned almost provider ten minutes later, slipping a fine pass for Costa which drew a finer block from Scott Dann.
Chelsea came within a whisker of putting the game to bed with 83 minutes gone. Delaney prevented Hazard running at Hennessey with a cynical foul, and Alonso nearly made Palace pay with his second goal of the season from the free kick, which bent over the wall and dove towards the top corner, beating Hennessey but not the underside of the bar.
The hosts might have taken lessons from Alonso’s delivery. Despite failing to create anything during injury time, they did get one last chance to pull a rabbit out of the hat with a late set piece. Up stepped Andros Townsend, with the hopes of a whole stadium on his shoulders. He failed to oblige them, ballooning his effort virtually out of Selhurt Park.
That miss ensured that Chelsea went home with the points. They now have 33 from 33 and sit, at least until Sunday’s matches, nine clear at the top of the table. That’s not a bad place to be with Christmas looming.