Chelsea eased back into the top four with an impressive 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, a result that ensured Liverpool’s brief incursion into the Champions League qualifying spots lasted less than an hour.
The pressure appeared to be on Thomas Tuchel’s team, who briefly slipped to sixth place in the table after the champions’ 2-1 win over Aston Villa at Anfield, but goals from Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic killed off Palace within the first ten minutes in south London. Kurt Zouma added the third after half an hour and Pulisic completed the scoring with 12 minutes to go.
Although Christian Benteke pulled a goal back after 63 minutes as the away team began to cruise, Roy Hodgson’s side gave Chelsea the easiest of rides. The match was never a contest.
The pattern was set from the kick-off. The home team sat deep and let their opponents have the ball. In a game of attack and defence, there was only ever going to be one outcome but even this callow Palace side must have hoped to hang around a little longer than they did.
Chelsea probed gently for eight minutes and then struck with intent. Mason Mount speared a cross into the box and Pulisic clipped it goalwards. Vicente Guaita made a sharp save but Eberechi Eze attempted to dribble the rebound out. Mount won back possession, laid the ball back to Callum Hudson-Odoi and the winger found Havertz in the area.
The German had so much time and space that it was embarrassing. Hodgson’s trademark is organised, smothering defence but Havertz was allowed to jink inside and score at his leisure with his left foot.
It took just two minutes to double the lead. Chelsea were knocking the ball around at will. The passing was crisp but there was no press to hurry the visiting side. Possession came to Ben Chilwell on the left and he picked out Havertz in the area. The 21-year-old looked up and saw Pulisic in space and the American rammed the cross into the net.
There was barely any sign of resistance. Palace were hapless. As Zouma added the third with a powerful header from Mount’s free-kick, the defence stood grounded and static. It was merely a case of how many Chelsea would score. Twice in the first half the ball was cleared off the line and Guaita was kept busy.
The home side barely threatened. Wilfried Zaha, who could be heard howling in anger and frustration, caused a flicker of danger but he was unable to find Benteke in the box.
When Palace were beaten 7-0 at home by Liverpool in December, Hodgson was bewildered. They were the better side in the first half and the final result was freakish. Here, Chelsea could have been seven up by the break. Mount was imperious, Hudson-Odoi enjoyed himself at wing-back and Havertz thrived up front. The German controlled a pass from Mount, flicked the ball over Gary Cahill’s head and fired off a shot. It would have been a stunning goal except for Guaita’s block.
Some of the sting went out of Chelsea’s game after the break. Chilwell curled a shot wide when his team-mates were queuing for a cross and a couple of sloppy passes from Hudson-Odoi at the back offered Palace opportunities that they could not even convert into a shot.
Tuchel’s team understandably slipped into second gear, perhaps with one eye on the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Porto. The easing of the momentum gave Palace a filip. Jeffrey Schlupp, who had replaced Eze, drove down the left and sent in a splendid cross that allowed Benteke to reduce the deficit.
That woke Chelsea up. Reece James, on for Hudson-Odoi, had his cross deflected by Cahill but Pulisic was lurking with intent and slammed the ball into the net. The American could be pleased with his evening’s work. So too could Tuchel. Chelsea are getting better as the season reaches its climax. They will not be shifted out of the top four easily.
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