“You’re supposed to be at home!” went the cry from a raucous Crystal Palace end at Stamford Bridge and, as they reflected upon this tough 2-1 win over their battle-hardened opponents en route back down the Fulham Road, many Chelsea fans will surely have echoed the sentiment that suggests their team is very much a work in progress despite another favourable outcome.
In many ways, this was a performance typical of a team still to find the right rhythm but in so many more it ought not to be.
The result was good, victory taking the Blues to within two points of league leaders Arsenal ahead of that crunch clash at Emirates Stadium in eight days’ time. The performance, however, was scrappy, disjointed and never fully under control, with another inferior foe coming startlingly close to a scalp once as prized as any in the land but now exposed on an all-too-regular basis.
For all Jose Mourinho referred to a time of “transition” in his post-match mitigation, it is the transition from defence to attack that will likely once more come under the manager’s microscope this week, as he continues to pursue a balanced formula to incorporate the apparatus in his laboratory, both those of an unapologetically explosive nature and those more subtle.
There were brief moments of brilliance; the odd impudent flick from Juan Mata, a swivel or two from Fernando Torres and fleeting instances of neat interplay between the frustratingly inconsistent Eden Hazard and the increasingly impressive Willian.
Yet this was another game that, far from ever being sewn up, frequently threatened to come apart at the seams as a dogged Palace side stretched a back-line that is looking more and more vulnerable with each passing week.
The loss of Gary Cahill to a thigh strain, allied with an erratic display from David Luiz, playing his way back into form following his own injury-layoff, certainly did not help matters as Palace pressed and gave a good account of themselves.
But it was again among the midfield where the Blues floundered, with Michael Essien and Ramires the latest combination left to toil as pass after pass went astray, betraying a lack of movement and imagination in key areas that must be addressed in January if their title bid is not to be gazumped by an ominously menacing Manchester City, who dispatched next Sunday’s challengers yesterday in such a way that this Chelsea side does not appear currently capable, notwithstanding Mourinho’s promise that soon someone will ship “six or seven” here.
If that is to be the case, his players must improve in the middle thirds; both of the pitch, by learning how to up the urgency without overly affecting the team’s fluency, and of matches.
It was not until the 10 minute-mark that the hosts settled into this contest, and yet their first spell of extended possession showed what was possible by yielding a goal. Willian was given the freedom of the borough to cut inside and hammer a shot that Julian Speroni could only parry onto the far post and Torres pounced on the rebound to slip the ball beyond the unfortunate goalkeeper.
The slow start and frantic finish would have mattered little, had the Blues reacted with determination to going in front and created a scoreline to implore their adversaries onto the front foot. Instead, Marouane Chamakh struck back with a guided/shinned back-stick volley from a flat Joel Ward centre that really should have been intercepted by one of Luiz or John Terry, but both were caught on their heels and paid the price.
The Moroccan striker was deployed as an auxiliary central midfielder in a counter-attacking Eagles line-up designed for the in-form attacker to provide flair and link with Barry Bannan and the lively Jason Puncheon between the lines amidst the space created behind the hustle and bustle of Cameron Jerome.
With scores level, the match may have gone either way but, as ever, timing of the goals was crucial and the Blues edged back in front before the break as another foray down the left by Willian resulted in Hazard cutting back to Ramires, who unleashed an unstoppable finish into the near corner that left Speroni rooted and changed the game’s complexion.
A gloomy day in West London could have looked a whole lot more downbeat had either a set-piece header from Damien Delaney or a scrambled Stuart O’Keefe effort found the net during a fairly dire second half.
Fortunately for the locals, Chelsea held on for three further points that could prove vital, even in spite of a quite inexplicable Ramires slip as he went clean through on goal late on that just about summed up the afternoon and poses more questions than answers in the run-up to the season’s biggest game so far.