Crystal Palace arrived at Stamford Bridge after three consecutive wins, and having beaten us here 1-2 last season. History was destined to repeat itself this season, as they again triumphed by that score line.
An early setback for Chelsea arrived before kick-off. Victor Moses having initially been named in the starting line-up, picked up an injury in the warm-up. This prompted a tactical re-shuffle. The usual 3-4-3 system was replaced with a 3-5-2. This perhaps had implications in the outcome of the match. Pedro was now tasked with filling the right wingback role, and Matic, originally dropped from the side, was re-called to feature in a three man central midfield alongside Fabregas and Kante. Hazard joined Costa up front.
The opening fifteen minutes was frantic. Three goals were scored in eleven minutes. Fabregas opened the scoring in the fifth minute. Hazard had drifted wide on the left and picked the ball up after it had been won in midfield. Palace were caught out, and as he headed for the goal line, he cut back, and delivered low into the box for the incoming (and untracked) Fabregas to fire in off the near post.
Palace responded within four minutes. Pedro had won the ball on the right hand corner of our own box, his clearance was poor though, straight to a Palace midfielder who knocked it into Zaha on the edge of the box, taking advantage of the surprise element to the attack, he turned and fired into the far bottom corner.
Another error put the visitors ahead. Perhaps an early sign of the deficiencies in this hastily adapted new system. As we only had one wide player on each side as opposed to the usual two, Azpilicueta tried to give Pedro support when possible, although these instances were fleeting. Pedro had been our main attacking source, wide on the right as we switched play diagonally in attack. Townsend had tracked back and defended admirably against him, and would continue to do so for the entirety of the match. Left back Schlupp backed him up, meaning Pedro was outnumbered on every occasion. This time he was dispossessed by Townsend, and with Azpilicueta out of position, the ball forward to Benteke on half way momentarily left him one v one with Luiz. He turned and advanced towards the edge of the box, where Luiz failed to dispossess him, and the ball deflected to Zaha, who put Benteke back through as he ran of the back of Luiz, and he lofted it over the advancing Courtois. Caught in transition, and poor individual defending the cause of us being behind.
Allardyce had obviously planned to face a Chelsea side playing 3-4-3, and set his own side out with two deep midfielders, but our enforced change of system was playing to his sides’ advantage. It was a narrative that repeated throughout this encounter, Chelsea now forced the issue as Palace were made to defend, but they defended brilliantly. As mentioned above, we were outnumbered in wide areas. Tomkins was excellent against Costa, who got no change out of the Palace back line all match, even after Tomkins was replaced at half time. Despite being outnumbered, Pedro was somehow creating space to get balls in the box. Costa’s best chance of scoring came from this in the first half. His cross was turned towards goal first time by Costa, but was well saved by Hennessey. In the second half a cross from the left was headed back towards the far post by Costa, and the home fans seemed to rise as one as the ball looked destined for the net, but it dropped half a yard wide. Another header, this time from Matic was turned over the top by Hennessey in the first half, and Luiz and Pedro both shot straight at the Welshman, but these chances aside, it was possession without a great deal of chances. This is of course how it often goes against sides that have snatched a lead and sit deeper and deeper as the match goes on. To be fair, Palace had no other option, and with two Chelsea forwards to deal with, and central midfielders increasingly distributing the ball from deep, the Palace duo of Cabaye and Milvojevic took up residence in front of their defence.
Hazard moved everywhere he could, Willian was introduced, then later Batshuayi, as Conte switched to a 4-4-2 but it was increasingly difficult to make headway. Palace had also switched shape by this point, going to a 3-5-2, which only seemed to force us to play across the pitch more. Crosses were coming in from both sides, but the Palace defence were dealing with them well. It was destined to be our first home defeat since September, ending a run of thirteen consecutive home wins.
It was one of those days, not helped by the late change of plan before kick-off, a stout Palace defensive display was certainly enough to warrant them a minimum of a point from this fixture. The fact they took all three was disappointing from our point of view, but not the end of the world. It was not a bad performance overall, especially given that we had to switch to plan B from the start. A positive result against Manchester City on Wednesday would quickly consign this result to memory, and hopefully, it will only go down as a minor blip in the end of season review.
Chelsea 1 (3-5-2, then 3-4-3 after first sub, 4-4-2 after second)
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill ©;
Pedro, Kante, Matic, (Willian 59), Fabregas, (Loftus-Cheek 97), Alonso, (Batshuayi 74); Costa.
Crystal Palace 2 (4-2-3-1, then 3-5-2 after third sub)
Zaha 9, Benteke 11,
Hennerssey; Ward, Tomkins, (Dann 46), Delaney 60), Sakho, Schlupp;
Milvojevic, Cabaye; Puncheon, Zaha, Townsend, (Kelly 60);