A game against an opponent who had yet to score a goal while conceding 17 in the first seven games of the new Premier League season should have been a walk in the park for the defending champions of the competition. But Chelsea's lackadaisical approach in the first half and bad luck in the second gave Crystal Palace the lifeline they were seeking, as the home side recorded their first three points of the season with a 2-1 win over the Blues at Selhurst Park.
If we’re looking for excuse, one could argue that Chelsea were at full strength with midfielder N'Golo Kanté and striker Álvaro Morata both sidelined due to hamstring injuries — a club now joined by Victor Moses, who apparently picked a similar problem in the first half of today's match. Still, the replacements for the injured (Fàbregas and Batshuayi) in the standard 3-4-3 should’ve been more than enough to get the job done alongside the returning David Luiz who had missed three games through suspension.
For Palace, former English nation team manager Roy Hodgson opted for a 4-4-2, lead upfront by the speed of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend. It was a long-shot "Hail Mary" attempt to find some sort of joy and cohesion up front to turn their 7-match scoreless streak around. And somehow, it worked. Twice. In a single half.
Palace spent most of the game sitting deep and picking off sloppy passes and pouncing on sloppy errors. Due to the compliant attitudes of the visitors, that plan worked to perfection. Chelsea were seemingly unable to string together more than three or four passes.
Once Palace had the ball, they just had to punt it forward and pray for it to find either Townsend or Zaha, who were almost sure to beat Chelsea defenders for pace and intensity and endeavor. They looked likely to score a goal every time they came forward — a strange paradigm given their previously goal-less nature — and it only took 10 minutes to actually do. That it had a huge helping hand from Chelsea was hardly surprising.
A ball crossed into the centre by Townsend was cleared by David Luiz, but only as far as Yohan Cabayé's knee. The ball then took a second deflection off César Azpilicueta, wrong-footing Thibaut Courtois and denying him any chance to make the save. The ball trickled over the line and Palace’s scoreless run of 641 minutes of Premier League playing time was over.
The opening goal allowed Palace to dig in deeper. But even the extra acres of space afforded by the home team did not result in Chelsea remembering to play to the proper level for a team looking to take home the Premier League title. The Blues were still squandering passes, runs and chances left and right until Palace decided to show why they were stuck in last place in the league table.
To call Palace's marking in the box any kind of "set piece defending" would be a travesty even to Sunday League teams. The home side outnumbered the visitors 6-to-3 in the box, and Chelsea still found the back of the net with a header from Bakayoko. it was the big summer signing’s first Premier League goal, which he had promised earlier to celebrate by dyeing his hair blue!
The goal lent a bit of momentum into Chelsea’s sails, but it did not last long and Palace went back to being the more dangerous of the two sides. Like Chelsea, their midfield was nonexistent, but who needs that when you can just find pacy attackes roaming freely in and around the opposition’s defence with long balls and wing-play?
Any possession Chelsea did achieve was quickly squandered as moves and passes and runs broke down thanks to a disconnect between mids and forwards, and just about every other strata on the pitch. Meanwhile, Palace continued to threaten with their speed on the counters and the balls gifted by sloppy play. Eventually, they found their second goal, the first scored by a Palace player proper on the new season.
After yet another defensive scramble, Chelsea’s clearance was stolen by Mamadou Sakho who found Wilfried Zaha barely marked by the cold-off-the-bench David Zappacosta, who replaced the injured Victor Moses just a couple minutes prior. Zaha didn’t need to be asked twice to try to make something happen, as he drove at goal, nullified Azpilicueta, and fired past Courtouis.
Thus came to an end one of the worst 45-minute performances from Chelsea ... and yet there were no changes at half-time, though Conte would use his final sub with well over 20 minutes to go, which is a rarity for him.
In fairness, the Blues started the second half brightly, with Fàbregas getting a bit unlucky when his long-range effort struck the crossbar instead of sneaking-in underneath it. But then that impetus petered out, and Chelsea were once again lacking any final product. Batshuayi remained isolated and ineffective, Willian seemed lost, Hazard anonymous, and the rest trying but just not on the same page as each other.
Conte opted to take out Batshuayi for Pedro which clearly frustrated the Belgian striker —- sorry, be better Michy! — then brought on Musonda for Willian, giving a solid 20-25 minutes for the Instagramming prospect to impress.
The changes did not bring any goals, but they did bring a bigger goal threat. Zappacosta had already been allowed to push forward and cross the ball as many times as possible, though only a few of his attempts were able to find Chelsea players. Meanwhile, Pedro added more pace to our attacks while Musonda brought on his best dribbling skills in an effort to turn his social media ramblings into reality. They both missed good chances to score. At some point, with lots of small players up front, Marcos Alonso became our best threat on corners, finding himself close to scoring twice.
Alas, it was just not happening for Chelsea — the day turning from pure frustration to frustration with a dose of “just one of those days” annoyance — and Palace regained their football in the match for the final 15 minutes.
To counter the threat imposed by Zappacosta, Hodgson went for offense, taking out Jeffrey Schlupp for Jason Puncheon and giving former Chelsea man Patrick van Aanholt more freedom to bomb forward. Since Chelsea weren’t able to connect with Zappacosta’s crosses anyway, exploiting the space behind the wing-back was a decent plan for Palace. Were it not for some extreme profligacy from the likes of Townsend and PvA (who missed an open net), Palace could’ve had several more goals.
Referee Andre Marriner gave Chelsea five extra minutes of suffering at the end, but it was of no use to anyone. The 2-1 loss at Selhurst Park to the Premier League's worst team was as inevitable as it was infuriating. There is no sense of injustic to console ourselves with either. It was just a bafflingly bad day for a team with much higher aims.