The Saturday afternoon match between Chelsea and Crystal Palace had all the makings of a fascinating competition as the visitors took the aspiring champions by surprise with their defensive resilience. Chelsea needed to win seven of their last 10 league fixtures to be crowned Premier League champions going into the fixture and they had won 13 consecutive home games but that alone could not prevent Antonio Conte’s men from dropping all three points against the Eagles.
The Blues took an early lead through a Cesc Fabregas goal only to be followed by an equaliser from Wilfred Zaha a few minute later. It got worse for the hosts in just a couple of minutes as Christian Benteke’s inspired finish saw them trailing behind. However, with 80 minutes of the game left to play, it seemed like the Blues were bound to pull back at least one.
However, the night ended quite differently. Questionable decisions, a total of 100+ minutes of game time played, a couple of flairs courtesy of the travelling fans, serious injuries, daring dissension and utter confusion towards the end when an offside call was mistaken for the final whistle cumulated in a fascinating spectacle at Stamford Bridge.
Here’s a look at the five major talking points from all the action:
#1 Zaha’s night out
Wilfried Zaha was largely responsible for Palace’s good fortune as he first scored and then set up his side’s second goal to hand Chelsea a shocking defeat at home. The Ivorian’s immaculately placed strike that went through the legs of Chelsea defenders and bolted in past Thibaut Courtois’s outstretched hand in the eighth minute drew Palace level after the Blues had already opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
He then went on to send his side and the travelling supporters over the moon when he set up Christian Benteke for a second, the one that was to be the eventual winner of the game. However, it was after Zaha’s contribution to the scoreline that the winger really shone. After the Eagles had the lead, it was just a matter of holding on and the former Manchester United man played his part well.
He defended well through the waves of attack from the hosts and made the most of his opportunities. No ball was lost cheaply when he was around and proved to be a diligent worker as he hounded the Chelsea players. With an immaculate take on record and three attempts on goal, Zaha is unlikely to forget this day quickly.
#2 Conte’s fascinating experiments with formation
In the absence of Victor Moses, Antonio Conte was compelled to start with a slightly modified version of his usual formation. While Pedro was deployed in place of Moses, Fabregas and Eden Hazard sat a little further back behind Diego Costa to make up for the gaps in the side. Armoured to the hilt with some of their best attackers, it started off according to the script for the hosts when they scored early, alas, that remained the highest point of their night.
When referee Craig Pawson blew to signal half-time, a Chelsea equaliser seemed inevitable especially after the magnificent half Eden Hazard had but it just never transpired. Conte turned up the heat on Sam Allardyce’s men even further when he substituted Nemanja Matic in favour of Willian followed up by Michy Batshuayi’s appearance in place of Marcos Alonso. As impressive as their lineup looked, it could not break through Palace’s dogged defending.
With just three natural defenders on the pitch, Chelsea gave it all for all 100 minutes of the game but left empty-handed while Palace fans were beside themselves after their fourth consecutive win in the league. The former Juventus manager even introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the mix in the 96th minute but by then he should have known the token change was futile.
#3 Bad day at the office
While players from both sides did a good job of keeping the peace in what always has the potential to be a contentious affair, it was Pawson who was the more controversial figure (he took charge of the same fixture last season when the Eagles won). The first questionable decision took place early in the game when Andros Townsend’s handball inside the box went completely unnoticed by both the referee and the linesman.
The former Newcastle player clearly moved his arm towards the ball and there could be no doubt about it. He also booked Diego Costa unnecessarily when a mere caution would have sufficed especially since he had allowed much worse infractions from both sides slide in the first half.
Poor decisions from the official didn’t just stop there. Mililojevic was lucky to stay on the pitch after he committed a bookable offence whilst on a yellow. On the other hand, Gary Cahill’s foul on Zaha late in the second half should have been a booking but went by with just a warning.
#4 Dogged defending wins the day
Instead of buckling under pressure, Crystal Palace rose to the occasion in typical underdog fashion after they had the lead within 10 minutes. They made the most of their early opportunities and held on rather valiantly in a repeat performance of last season much to the satisfaction of the rest of the bunch in the Premier League. The Palace defenders did some of their best work of the season in their bid to move to a safe distance away from the relegation battle.
The Eagles were five points poorer at this point last season under Alan Pardew and their victory against Chelsea could not have come at a better time. Joel Ward, Mamadou Sakho, James Tomkins and Jeffrey Schlupp were incredible at the back as was Wayne Hennessey who made 10 saves. The former Liverpool player ended the game looking especially impressive after making a couple of crucial interceptions inside the box.
Joel Ward and Jeffrey Schlupp tracked Hazard and Pedro well, especially after the break and contained the threat from the Blues far better than some of the better sides this season. Even Christian Benteke who had little to do this afternoon played his part well every time one of Chelsea’s defenders had the ball at their feet.
#5 Chelsea’s inexplicable failure
All the statistics at the end of the game indicate Chelsea should have been the side to win with more than 70% possession and a far superior number of attempts on goal. However, football hardly ever follows a logical script and today was just one of those days. Chelsea exhausted all their opportunities in 100 minutes and failed to find an equaliser. Their waves of attack were relentless as Hazard, Pedro, Willian, Fabregas tried every trick in their book to deliver that match-winning pass or goal but failed every single time.
Hazard who was sensational in the first half was a more subdued figure in the second but continued having a significant influence on the game. They picked every possible cross and pass but inexplicably failed.
Towards the end, the game looked like a practice session on crossing with Willian and Pedro passing the ball to their central defenders to do the job. Diego Costa himself failed to register a shot on target even though he found himself facing the goal with the ball at his feet on more than a few occasions.
However, their loss doesn’t seem as mysterious when you consider the absence of Victor Moses who is a far better defender than Pedro. With just seven points ahead, Chelsea’s failure to deliver could not have come at a worse time with all the teams in the league ready for the final stretch.