Chelsea hang on at Crystal Palace to maintain Champions League push

This ought to have been rather easier for Chelsea. Against a Crystal Palace team with nothing to play for – neither Europe nor Premier League survival – they surged into a two-goal lead.

At that point, the notion that this derby would become nervy for Frank Lampard and his players felt outlandish. They were fluent on the ball and, in the quicksilver, Christian Pulisic, who scored the second with a thunderous hit, they can boast one of the division’s in-form players.

But the problem for Chelsea is that they must play both ways and, when they are defending, they can look altogether less secure. When Wilfried Zaha unleashed a firecracker than sizzled through Kepa Arrizabalaga, the under-pressure Chelsea goalkeeper, it was the prompt for a contest to break out – one that Lampard’s team would ultimately edge to keep them on course for a Champions League finish but only after dicing with disaster.

Tammy Abraham, on as a substitute, had made it 3-1 only for Christian Benteke to respond immediately for Palace and Chelsea would waste chances for 4-2, most notably through Abraham, before the dramatic finale.

During five minutes of stoppage-time, the visitors looked incapable of killing the ball and closing out the game and they almost paid. Scott Dann headed against the inside of the post from a Zaha cross after Abraham had surrendered possession and there was also time for Kurt Zouma to make a saving challenge on Benteke. The full-time whistle brought relief for Lampard.

Roy Hodgson had made the point beforehand that his Palace squad was not set up to cope with the fixture congestion, saying he knew it would be an “uphill struggle” and the strain contributed to them falling behind.

When Reece James played a pass up the inside-right channel, Gary Cahill was the favourite to get across to it ahead of Willian. Then, rather abruptly, he was not. Cahill felt a stab of pain in his hamstring and slipped down onto the turf in agony, unable even to watch as Willian streaked away and cut back for Olivier Giroud to finish. The former Chelsea defender would be helped off.

Should Willian have kicked the ball out? No. For all he knew, Cahill might only have slipped and how silly would he have looked then? Willian was in full flight and it took only a couple of seconds for him to centre for the goal. In that kind of moment, players are simply not wired to stop.

The breakthrough calmed Chelsea. There had been a wobble from Arrizabalaga in the second minute when he shanked a clearance straight at James McArthur, who was 40 yards out. The lob was on for the Palace midfielder but he could not execute.

With Billy Gilmour preferred to Jorginho in front of the back four, Chelsea settled into a patch of passing rhythm. Zouma blew a free header from a Willian corner – a glaring miss – before the latter combined with Giroud to play in Pulisic on the left-hand edge of the area.

Pulisic has bristled with menace since the restart and he had too much swagger for Joel Ward, darting outside him and unloading a vicious shot high into the near corner. Vicente Guaita was beaten by raw power.

With Willian forcing Guaita into a fine low save, it was difficult to see a way back for Palace and yet the home team found one. It followed a sloppy turnover by James but when Patrick van Aanholt nudged a deflected ball square, it was all about the ferocious power in Zaha’s right foot. He looked angry and he channelled the rage into the shot from 25 yards, a celebration of technique which ripped past Arrizabalaga and into the roof of the net. The goalkeeper appeared to have it within his sights but he could do nothing about it – a bad look for him.

This Chelsea team is prone to stumbles and Palace finished the first-half in the ascendancy, with Zaha pepped and Benteke heading at Arrizabalaga. You sensed Chelsea needed another goal and Giroud ought to have scored it early in the second-half only to send a free header high from James’s cross.

What had to worry Lampard was how easily Palace were able to play up to his backline. His midfield did not provide enough protection. Chelsea nerves jangled when Zouma had to block from Jordan Ayew after a poorly defended corner.

Lampard introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Abraham and, almost immediately, the former played in the latter to shoot low and in off the far post. But Chelsea were in no mood to make life easy for themselves and nor were Palace. The home team went straight up to the other end through Van Aanholt, who beat Andreas Christensen too easily, and crossed for Benteke to tap home. The grandstand finish was on.


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