The return of N’golo Kante to Chelsea’s midfield was a boost and gave Conte options that he did not have against Manchester City in terms of availability of midfield personnel. This provided him the option of switching to a three-man midfield for the visit of Palace, but it was an option he decided not to take up. 3-4-3 was opted for again, but this time the front three saw Hazard wide, with Giroud selected as the centre forward. Willian was the other winger chosen to start here. Hodgson started with a 4-4-2 system, and early on Chelsea seized the initiative. Palace played with narrow wingers to compress the midfield area.
Chelsea exploited the weaknesses of this set up well and enjoyed a lot of possession from the off. Switching play from side to side regularly and using the maximum width of the pitch with wing backs Zappacosta and Alonso, Palace couldn’t get their wingers out wide quick enough to cover the continued threat down both flanks. Our first chance of the evening was indicative of what was to come throughout the match. Zappacosta received the ball down the right flank, Schlupp was slow to get across to him, and left back Van Aanholt stayed narrow to deal with Willian, so the Italian had plenty of time and space to pick out Giroud, but the ball was slightly behind him and he couldn’t redirect his header on target. The next chance also emanated from the left, Willian cutting in to fire low towards the near post, but Hennessey got down to stop it. A similar story was taking place down the left flank, although not as often as on the opposite side. Alonso had time to put a ball into the box, cleared as far as Kante, his ball played in was redirected towards goal by Giroud, but was straight at Hennessey.
Palace showed it wouldn’t all be one-way traffic though, as Townsend volleyed just over directly from a throw in.
There was by now an on-going trend to the match. Chelsea dominant in possession, moving the ball across the back line and into wing backs Zappacosta and Alonso. Fabregas and Kante also had space as Palace dropped deep. They were also able to play wide, particularly to the excellent Zappacosta. Schlupp was never anywhere near him, enduring a torrid afternoon defensively, the Italian was a constant threat to the visitors. Conte’s side were tactically exploiting the Palace system to perfection.
Willian had had a couple of shots emanating from Zappacosta passes but put us ahead with a goal created from the left flank. He cut in across the edge of the box and fired low in off the near post as Hennessey seemed to be rather slow getting down to it. Nevertheless, a deserved lead.
The second goal followed shortly after, and both wing backs played a part this time. Alonso put in a cross along the floor, Willian dummied it for Hazard, who then played in Zappacosta on the left, his shot beat the keeper but hit the unfortunate Kelley, before ricocheting back of Hennessey and onto Kelley again, and ending up in the net.
Chelsea were now all over Palace. Kante played a ball into Willian, who brilliantly found Hazard with a back heel, Hazard then put Giroud in, but his shot was fantastically blocked on the line by Tomkins, who always seems to play well here.
Into the second half then, and Palace were boosted by the introduction of Zaha at half time. On for the ineffective Benteke. Straight away they looked livelier and had an early chance as Sorloth profited from some careless play in front of our own box by Christensen, and he rattled the near post with a powerful strike. Zaha made a difference in the second half, providing more of a link between midfield and attack for the visitors as he dropped into the whole and got on the ball regularly. Their best player when they beat us earlier in the season, it was clear to see how important he will be to keep them up, and his recent absence has coincided with their drop down the table.
At the other end, Tomkins made another great block from Willian after a quick Chelsea counter attack. Another Willian effort sandwiched a Hennessey save from Hazard at the near post. The Brazilian having a free-kick well saved.
Wan-Bissaka blocked a goal bound Giroud effort on the line (again). Alonso then crossed for the Frenchman, who directed his shot against the upright, and couldn’t sort his feet out in time to properly connect with the rebound. Giroud had been great all evening, a threat when provided with ammunition, and linked well with Hazard and Willian, but it wasn’t to be his night in front of goal.
Despite Chelsea having a lot of chances in the second half, Palace had been a lot better than they were in the first period. They made it a nervous finish, Sorloth was denied a goal for a dubious foul in the build-up, and they found the net after Zaha played in Van Aanholt down the left, and the ex-Chelsea man fired through the legs of Courtois to deny us a clean sheet in the last knockings.
Overall though, it didn’t take the shine off a good Chelsea performance, one that was needed after the embarrassment at the Etihad, and a confidence builder before our visit to the Nou Camp on Wednesday.
Chelsea (3-4-3) 2 (Willian 25, Kelly own goal 32)
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill (c);
Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas (Pedro 88), Alonso;
Willian, Giroud (Morata 72), Hazard (Bakayoko 88).
Crystal Palace (4-4-2) 1 (Van Aanholt 90)
Hennessey; Wan-Bissaka, Kelly, Tomkins, Van Aanholt;
Townsend (Lee 81), McArthur, Milivojevic (c), Schlupp;
Benteke (Zaha h/t), Sorloth.