While statistically nothing like the goalfest at the Etihad, which took Manchester City briefly ahead of Chelsea in the table, this was an equally open game between two sides supposed to be a world apart in ambition and ability. As the result, uncertain until the end, was also a home win, Jose Mourinho’s side went second, two points behind Arsenal, who they play a week tomorrow.
It seemed impossible that the second half could remain scoreless as the ball fizzed from end to end, above all in a manic last few minutes. But Palace, invigorated under their new manager Tony Pulis, could not force an equaliser and Chelsea, well below their best, wasted the chances to apply a flattering gloss to the scoreline.
So all the goals came before the interval, Fernando Torres and Marouane Chamakh balancing things out before Ramires struck what proved to be a winner. Whereas Chamakh’s effort was his third in successive games, Torres still has only two in the League and together with Demba Ba, who came on towards the end, and Samuel Eto’o, who did not, Chelsea’s £62 million strikers have mustered a mere five between them.
Palace have tightened up in defence since Fulham put four past them at Selhurst Park, prompting Ian Holloway’s exit. Apart from delayed reactions when Torres nipped past them to score, the journeymen Danny Gabbidon and Damien Delaney handled themselves well and near the end Julian Speroni pulled off some heroic saves.
Palace, who have not won here since 1982, lost the powerful South African midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi in the first quarter of the game, but young Stuart O’Keefe proved a worthy replacement as the visiting midfield fought hard to prevent Eden Hazard and Willian, who was given the central midfield role behind Torres, ever taking complete control.
“The result could have been 5-1 or 2-2,” Mourinho said, without admitting that the latter had been far more likely. Pulis could only see positives in Palace’s effort and performance. “We were a little bit on the back-foot in the first half but in the second half we pushed up and to be still in the game in the 94th minute was a credit to us,” he said.
Chelsea having conceded nine times as many goals as yesterday’s opponents in the last five games (nine against one) was one of the season’s more unlikely statistics, which was terminated when they took the lead after a dull opening quarter of an hour. Speroni only managed to push Willian’s drive onto a post and his defenders let him down in being far slower to follow in than Torres, who was there first to collect a tap-in.
The game was all the better for it, especially when Palace equalised. Chelsea had just seemed to be finding their rhythm, as Juan Mata’s clever flick allowed the rampaging Branislav Ivanovic to drive a shot just past the far post, and Michael Essien shot wide from outside the penalty area.
Just before the half-hour, however, the visitors produced a fine move across the width of the field, begun by Chamakh, who was then in position to finish it after Jason Puncheon had fed Joel Ward on the left for a low cross. Chamakh’s effort may have been slightly mishit but was still good enough to beat Petr Cech.
If that ensured that Chelsea would not improve on a poor League record of only one clean sheet since September, they did have the lead back within five minutes. Hazard had the better of Adrian Mariappa, not for the first or last time, and cut the ball back for Ramires to hit fiercely and with curl on it, Torres doing his bit by ducking out of the way.
The second half was played at a furious pace, and it was Palace who forced all the chances until the last 10 minutes. Cameron Jerome shot over the bar, Puncheon’s shot on a classic counter-attack was beaten away by Cech and then his free-kick after Essien’s foul led to a header by Delaney, clutched gratefully by the goalkeeper. With the vociferous visiting supporters behind Cech’s goal refusing to lose hope, Yannick Bolasie, on as a substitute, could not direct his header low enough and then Chelsea somehow survived an astonishing scramble.
Cech saved low down from O’Keefe, Ivanovic bravely blocked the midfielder’s follow-up and from the subsequent corner Delaney’s header slid only just wide of the near post. Chelsea had been attacking too, but without threatening until the last few minutes. After Oscar forced the ball forward, Ramires had only to roll it square to one of two colleagues, but allowed Speroni to parry. The goalkeeper then brought off an astonishing double save from André Schürrle and Ba.
Mourinho has said it would be “unacceptable” to finish the season without a trophy but his side will have to be sharper than this, starting in the Capital One Cup at Sunderland this week.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Azpilicueta; Ramires, Essien; Mata (Oscar, 61), Willian (Schürrle, 80), Hazard; Torres (Ba, 83).
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Gabbidon, Delaney, Ward; Bannan (Bolasie, 50), Dikgacoi(O’Keefe, 24), Jedinak, Puncheon; Chamakh (Gayle, 88); Jerome.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Hazard (Chelsea)
Match rating: 7/10