Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace: Willian's endless fine form and more
It’s been torrid times for the Blues. Five defeats in their last ten, Chelsea is hanging onto their Premier League Champions status like a delinquent tenant trying to avoid the landlord. Against Crystal Palace, though, the Champions were more recognisable. Willian's inspired performance handed the Londoners a 2-1 win.
Following two consecutive defeats in Manchester, Chelsea slipped five points behind the Premier League top-four. With a trip to Barcelona scheduled, Antonio Conte was desperate for his team return to winning ways. Belief will be required at the Nou Camp. The Bridge Boys responded by digging deep to claw out a win against a Crystal Palace side who have now lost their last four.
The lively encounter saw the Blues nick in two first-half goals. That turned out to be just enough. Chelsea managed to douse the fire sparked by Patrick van Aanholt's late strike. There were other talking points from the game. Here are three.
Willian pulls the strings in attack
The Brazilian submitted another man of the match performance. My good friend, Mathaeus Abuwa, thinks he's more important to Chelsea than Eden Hazard these days. I can't argue.
Antonio Conte can absolutely count on Willian to help Chelsea out of the mire and back into the top-four corridors. He was the talk of the evening against Palace, simply outplaying everyone on the pitch. The 29-year-old opened the scoring with a deflected effort and then went on to relentlessly torment the Eagles defence. It wasn’t hard to identify Chelsea’s livewire in the attack. The former Shakhtar forward pulled the strings up front.
Including his six Premier League goals, Willian has now scored 13 goals for Chelsea this season. It’s his best return since he joined Chelsea in, um, 2013.
Chelsea did some uncharacteristic business in the January transfer window. That included signing 31-year-old Olivier Giroud and letting go the hungrier, much younger Michy Batshuayi. That tale's already been told, however. Against Palace, Giroud auditioned for a starting berth at Camp Nou midweek. He depicted all the characteristics of a centre-forward, except to be lucky.
The Frenchman, although a bit sluggish, made all the right runs into the channels. He held up play for quicker teammates like Willian and Eden Hazard to overlap. He provided stiff aerial competition in the box against James Tomkins and Martin Kelly. On another day he would have scored a goal, if not a brace, without trying half as hard.
First, he had a shot cleared off the line by James Tomkins. Then a brilliant team move begun by Willian was spurned in the end when the pointy-bearded one cannoned his shot off the base of the post from eight yards.
Soaking up pressure doesn’t help
Palace tried to be conservative in the first half. They sat deep and allowed Chelsea come at them. Roy Hodgson's tactic backfired terribly. He doesn't have the horses Manchester United possess to strike on the counter.
Palace were all over the place in the first half and overrun. They conceded two. They had no shot on target. They were tortured on the flanks and saw only 32% of the ball. With only two goal attempts from his side before the interval, Hodgson had to tinker at the break.
Palace came out smoking in the second half. They took the game to their hosts and had a goal controversially disallowed before Van Aanholt pulled one back. The full-time whistle blew before the Eagles could find a leveller.
When one is defensive to a fault, it helps to remember fault is the operative word. Hodgson remembered too late. Conte mustn't forget when he sends his squad onto the pitch in Barcelona.