After next Sunday, the direction of Chelsea’s season will likely be decided. Saturday evening’s home match against Crystal Palace is the first of three matches between now and next Sunday, including Chelsea’s trip to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League tie and next Sunday, Chelsea face Leicester in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.
But first and foremost, Chelsea have to deal with a London derby against Crystal Palace, a match in which Chelsea cannot afford to drop points.
It was Crystal Palace that handed Chelsea the first of truly harrowing defeat last October. A 2-1 defeat at Selhurst Park that earned Palace their first points of the season and a match in which the Blues very much underestimated Palace’s abilities.
Chelsea do not have the luxury of any slip-ups of the sort in the Premier League. The Blues sit in fifth place and five points behind Tottenham. Points dropped to any team between now and 1 April, when Spurs visit Stamford Bridge, will likely consign Chelsea to missing out on the Champions League.
It’s not like the Blues are in the best form either. Things might be looking much different if Chelsea would have held out for a 1-0 win over Barcelona two and a half weeks ago and held on for victory at Old Trafford a fortnight ago.
But mistakes and lack of intensity have plagued the team lately and has cost the team results that should have gone their way against both sides.
On current form, last week’s defeat to Manchester City was not entirely unexpected, but the caution with which Chelsea were instructed to play was a bit alarming, especially the talent on display.
But Chelsea’s midfield last week was vastly under strength with the late withdrawal of N’Golo Kante after fainting in training the previous Friday. Luckily for Chelsea, Kante has trained well all week and is available to face Palace, and Tiemoue Bakayoko has also recovered from a calf strain.
Chelsea are still without the services of David Luiz and Ethan Ampadu, which could be a slight problem as Andreas Christensen looks as if he might need a rest after a series of matches. After all, the young Danish defender has looked less assured in recent weeks.
For Crystal Palace, they’ve received their own boost, as Wilfried Zaha has returned to training after a knee injury. The winger terrorised the Blues in their first meeting, and in conjunction with Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend give Roy Hodgson the same front three that gave Chelsea problems back in September.
However, it’s further back in the formation where Palace have really suffered with injuries. Palace are missing the services of their first-choice right back Joel Ward and their captain Scott Dann, though Mamadou Sakho has returned to training and may take his place in the starting 11 once again.
Those injuries at the back and a few in midfield, combined with the absence of Zaha, have cost Palace a lot of points, having not won in the Premier League since mid-January.
But Palace should take heart from their performances over the last two weeks, where they nearly earned a draw against Tottenham and probably should have won against Manchester United. But both of those matches were at Selhurst Park where Palace have put on far better performances than they have away from home this season.
Chelsea should be well aware that they’re facing a Palace team that are desperate for points in their race for survival, and if the Blues cast their eyes towards Wednesday’s trip to the Nou Camp, they could find themselves out of the Champions League in more ways than one.