It was just what the doctor had ordered.
After two humbling defeats at the hands of the Mancunian teams in the Premier League, Chelsea were longing to get back on the winning track. As in, a home game against one of the Premier League’s worst sides was the prime opportunity to achieve such a feat.
Unlike their previous acts, Chelsea were dominant and proactive against their opponents. And the 2-1 win felt as if it could have been a bigger trouncing if bad luck — and the bodies of Palace players — were not getting in our way.
Looking ahead of schedule where we will be up against Barcelona at Camp Nou, Antonio Conte made some changes from his customary lineups. Centre back Antonio Rüdiger, now firmly instated as a starter in the backline, was replaced by the man he took over in Gary Cahill.
Still on defence Victor Moses gave way to Davide Zappacosta, with the Nigerian as a bench option next to returnee Tiemoué Bakayoko. Speaking of which, midfield saw the reintroduction of N’Golo Kanté to play next to Spanish conductor Cesc Fàbregas, who would be the main creative outlet for the attacking line of Willian, Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard.
As for Crystal Palace, the biggest draw of their announced squad was the return of Wilfried Zaha to availability after spending five weeks out due to knee ligament damage. At least he was not a starter, and as such Palace would rely on 1.90m strikers Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth to threaten the Blues’ defence by being targets in the box for crosses out of Andros Townsend and Jeffrey Schlupp’s advances.
As a team true to the English footballing school of minnows vs. giants, Crystal Palace were set up on the most basic 4-4-2 ever in a search to frustrate Chelsea’s advances on the 3-4-3. Therefore, a low block defence and ten men in white behind the line of the ball were common sights in the game.
Palace did little to no work in pressing, instead looking to cushion the pressure put onto Chelsea who had more than enough time to work on the ball. Certainly a nice change of pace from the City game.
With that, the Blues started to exploit the deep and narrow ways of the visitors at the Bridge. Loads of work were done on the flanks, especially on the right as Zappacosta was finding it quite easy to blaze past former Blue prospect Patrick van Aanholt.
Crosses coming from the Italian speedster would be looming into the box looking for the well-gelled locks of Olivier Giroud, who was doing very well in attacking those balls with runs dragging defenders alongside him. Even in two versus one aerial challenges, the Frenchman was still able to come out on top although it was a bit difficult to put the ball on target.
Palace also had a plan, even if it was as simple as their tactics, to move forward. Most times, they would count on balls launched from deep towards their flanks in hopes to get a Chelsea defender off-guard on their covering duties. At first, they managed to win some of these battles but once the game got into proper gear, those threats were almost completely nullified.
Still, they had another way of bringing danger to our side with set pieces. It was how they managed to have Benteke completely free to finish a ball on our far post in a corner play, as well as a neat attempt from Townsend out of a long throw. But since they were finding it difficult to string along more than three passes once they got themselves in our half, those chances were the only ones they managed to muster in the first half.
After an initial 10 minutes of loads of back and forth between the two sides, Chelsea began to dominate all phases of the pitch. Combinations utilising speed and flair on the right between Willian and Zappacosta, with Hazard joining from the left flank at times to help these advances, were slicing Palace open and forcing goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and his teammates at defence into several interventions to keep the scoreline neutral. Even Kanté, who had been used to make the most of his work in defence, was getting in the action with some sweet switches to the flanks to help Chelsea in their advances.
But as a Brazilian popular saying claims, soft water in hard rock hits it long enough to drill it open. And it was up to our Brazilian on the pitch to make the first honours.
Out of a pass from Kanté, Willian veered from left to centre with his customary bursts of pace to separate himself from his markers. Finding space and time to shoot, he did so with a low attempt from outside the box that seemed certain for yet another Hennessey claim. However, a deflection from defender James Tomkins had Willian’s attempt slotting itself right in a tight space just out of Hennessey’s range and into the post, hitting the wood before making it past the line.
As they are ought to do, the goal had Palace waking up to what was taking place in front of them this whole time. The Londoners started to come out of their shells, advancing their lines and trying to string passes and find plays forward. But momentum and quality were still all on Chelsea’s side, who took only a few minutes to double their advantage.
Whereas Tomkins’ deflection still had Willian getting his 13th goal this season, our second goal was almost entirely the work by a clumsy and desperate Palace defence. Palace were caught offguard with their players a bit too forward on a counter, with Cesc setting Alonso for a run down the left flank from our half. The Spanish left wing back then sent a neat low cross faked out by Willian that arrived on Hazard’s feet, who then set up Zappacosta for what would be a more than deserving goal for all the work he had put offensively in the first half. However, the attempt was first parried by Hennessey, and then pushed into Palace’s goal by defender Martin Kelly. No complaints about this one!
Having learned the lesson, Palace returned to their previous tactics of playing deep, narrow and set on the counter. Thus, Chelsea kept dominating play and could have very well gone into half-time with a 3-0 lead. But Tomkins managed to make a miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime clearance to keep Giroud from scoring his first Premier League goal as a Chelsea player.
Giroud was unlucky not to score today. Worked hard up top and was instrumental in linking play and keeping attacks alive. Quality performance and a deserved ovation from the home fans. 2-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/HYqmpWw5aA— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) March 10, 2018
Change was in dire need in Palace’s camp, and it came swiftly from Roy Hodgson. Seeing how the midfield pairing of James McArthur and Luka Milivojevic were not dealing well with Kanté and Cesc, the English manager mixed things up by having Schlupp join the duo in a three-man set-up while bringing Zaha back into action in place of Benteke. Sorloth would be the target of attacking actions, as Townsend moved forward from wide midfield to the attacking line who were now a band of three to mirror Chelsea’s backline.
And although Hodgson may not be known for his tactical acumen, his changes worked. Especially the introduction of Zaha, who was keen on bringing chaos onto the Bridge with the help of some collective napping from our defence whenever he touched the ball in the first minutes of the second half.
Palace’s improvement also came from their work in pressing. Like many minnows before them, our London neighbours started to push themselves up and close down on our defenders whenever we attempted to play from the back. So once again goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was forced to go long on his distributions, and not being very accurate on those.
The game returned to the back and forth of the initial minutes, with both Palace and Chelsea going at it with loads of intensity. But Chelsea were still dominating in the volume of offensive plays and ball retention, managing to advance the ball not only with Courtois’ releases and plays on the counter but also with some neat build up from the men in offence.
Willian was the man running the show, and pulling along his teammates. But Palace were intent on keeping Chelsea’s lead in two goals at most.
What a run this was by Willian. Beats two men, leads the break, plays the ball out wide to Giroud and gets it back but his shot is blocked. He's in the mood tonight. 2-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/Jmqol1H0rV— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) March 10, 2018
And the visitors also had major help from the goalpost. Fools all of us are, for believing that luck was starting to turn into our favour!
With the game slowing down in rhythm, changes started to come from Chelsea’s corner. On minute 72 Giroud, who had been magnificent in his task as a striker, came off for Álvaro Morata whose entrance changed the dynamics of play in our attacking forays. 16 minutes later, Cesc and Eden gave way to Pedro and Bakayoko respectively. The latter two partly in fault in the collective screw-up that led to Van Aanholt scoring his first goal against Chelsea after getting very close on doing so last season, when he was still a Sunderland player.
But the Dutchman score was only a consolation prize for Palace. Even if Chelsea were no longer as solid as they once were in defending their lead, it was all about setting themselves on cruise mode and let the few minutes left on the clock run out to confirm our 5th win of the year in 16 matches.
xG map for Chelsea - Crystal Palace. It is truly spectacular that those two stupid goals were the two Chelsea goals among all those clear scoring chances. pic.twitter.com/YNCgFqUma9— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) March 10, 2018
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