Kezman finds title rhythm for the Blues

Chelsea 4 - Crystal Palace 1
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The Independent Online

Spring is in the air and so is Chelsea's first championship for 50 years. On a scorching afternoon, when players of both sides were grateful that so much of the pitch was in shade, Crystal Palace's manager, Iain Dowie, won the award for most sensible dress - a T-shirt and shorts - but his opposite number Jose Mourinho, incongruously sporting a scarf, continued to home in on the big prize.

Spring is in the air and so is Chelsea's first championship for 50 years. On a scorching afternoon, when players of both sides were grateful that so much of the pitch was in shade, Crystal Palace's manager, Iain Dowie, won the award for most sensible dress - a T-shirt and shorts - but his opposite number Jose Mourinho, incongruously sporting a scarf, continued to home in on the big prize.

A maximum of 14 points are now required from eight games to secure it. Despite undergoing something of a defensive crisis - they conceded a goal for the second time in three matches, making 10 in all this season - Mourinho's men recovered their poise in the second half, regaining the lead through the excellent Joe Cole and adding to it with two goals by the substitute Mateja Kezman, the first a howler by the visitors' goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly.

Crystal Palace, as usual, were resolute and caved in only after seeing players of the quality of Arjen Robben, Tiago and Kezman come off the substitutes' bench. They may have earned a deserved draw against Manchester United last time out, but Dowie knows these are not the matches to decide his team's fate. Home games against Norwich and Southampton will do that.

Mourinho, innovatory as ever, chalked up another first by sending Cole, his man of the moment, to address the media. Hard as he tried to emphasise the importance of the whole team, Cole inevitably found himself questioned about his own outstanding form, observed yesterday by Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant, Tord Grip.

"I still think centre-midfield would be my best position, but it's important to be versatile these days and I'm just happy I'm playing," he said. "The main thing is just stepping closer to winning the title. I'm just so excited and can't stop looking at the fixture list."

What he has seen there recently is a run of games against the bottom four clubs - Southampton conclude the sequence at St Mary's next Saturday - which was comforting at a time when Robben's injury had provoked the nearest thing to a blip Chelsea are likely to endure.

The matches with Norwich and West Bromwich Albion were not easy and nor was this one for over an hour. Palace have spirit and a penalty-box predator in the striker now known as Andrew Johnson, so the irony here was that his aim deserted him at a crucial moment.

In the statutory two minutes added on the end of the first half, with Aki Riihilahti having equalised Frank Lampard's opening goal, Petr Cech was for once caught out of position as Tom Soares returned a free-kick into the Chelsea area, where Johnson screwed wide of an open goal from eight yards.

Lampard, John Terry's only serious rival as Footballer of the Year, had earlier been hero and villain in the space of quarter of an hour. In the 28th minute Cole, outstanding from the start, fed his former West Ham team-mate, who drew back his foot 30 yards out and drilled an irresistible shot beyond Kiraly into the corner of the net. If the lead was deserved, it had been a while coming. Cole produced two good efforts early on and Terry's ambitious volley flew across goal, Didier Drogba then shooting at Kiraly from a difficult angle from Cole's fine pass.

Cole's improvisation set up another good chance, Kiraly thwarting Duff, before the breakthrough came, only to be followed by improbable retaliation. Wayne Routledge, previously wasteful with his crosses, took a low corner on the left, Lampard miskicked and the ball fell perfectly for Riihilahti, the extrovert Finn, to sweep in. There were only two minutes until the interval, packed with further chances at each end. First Kiraly did well to turn Drogba's overhead kick for a corner, Ricardo Carvalho heading wide from the flag-kick, and then Johnson spurned the chance to score his 19th Premiership goal of the season.

"I'm not going to criticise Andrew for that," Dowie said. He was more upset with his team's marking nine minutes after the interval. As Eidur Gudjohnsen, again playing deep in midfield, surged forward, Cole was left with too much space on the right, making the angle for a shot that fizzed across the possibly unsighted goalkeeper into the far corner of the net.

Dowie responded boldly, introducing two attackers in Sandor Torghelle and Dougie Freedman only to be upstaged immediately by the return of Robben, seven weeks after the wide man was clogged at Blackburn. The next change proved the decisive one, though even Mourinho could hardly have planned the bizarre third goal. Kezman arrived with a written note for Paulo Ferreira, who was still glancing at it when Robben set up the Serb for his first touch on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. An innocuous drive straight at the goalkeeper turned into something else as Kiraly went down on all fours and somehow allowed the ball between his arms and then his legs. He should have stuck to his usual baggy tracksuit trousers, tropical temperatures or not, and would probably have kept it out.

The visitors understandably seemed to lose heart for the remaining quarter of an hour and Kezman's second goal, following up a drive by Lampard in added time, was hard on them. The long winter may be over, but Palace's long march to safety is merely approaching the critical stage.

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