LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Stamford Bridge as Chelsea held on for a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
1. Chelsea get much-needed victory
Eight weeks into an underwhelming 2018, Chelsea have arrived at the stretch that will define their season.
Antonio Conte insists that they have not given up on the top four, even if last week’s limp surrender to Manchester City suggested as much. That being said, it is Barcelona and Leicester City that must be overcome in the Champions League and FA Cup if glory is to be salvaged from a campaign in drift.
Perhaps mindful of the chance to gain ground on Liverpool, Conte picked a strong team, bringing back N’Golo Kante after his health scare and allowing Eden Hazard to return to his favoured wing role supplying Olivier Giroud, handed only his second Premier League start since signing from Arsenal.
Chelsea began with a sense of urgency all too rare in their play since the turn of the year, and Palace’s narrow back four provided plenty of space for wing-backs Davide Zappacosta and Marcos Alonso to surge into crossing positions.
The visitors’ only threatening moments of a one-sided first half came when Christian Benteke was afforded the chance to use his physicality when isolated against Chelsea defenders. One intelligent flick-on from a throw-in enabled Andros Townsend, highlighted by Conte as a danger on Friday, to lash just over.
But it was Chelsea who deservedly broke through on 25 minutes, when Willian cut inside from the left and unleashed a low shot that clipped off James Tomkins and Wayne Hennessey’s near post on its way in.
Palace wilted as Chelsea surged, and seven minutes later an attack that flowed from flank to flank yielded their second. Hazard helped Alonso’s low cross on into the path of Zappacosta, and Martin Kelly could only redirect the Italian’s firm shot into his own net.
Wilfried Zaha, scourge of Chelsea on numerous occasions, replaced Benteke at half-time and Palace’s more intense pressing briefly unsettled Chelsea, with Alexander Sorloth crashing a shot off the post after Andreas Christensen had lost the ball under pressure.
Conte’s men quickly re-asserted control and Giroud was at the heart of everything they did well, hitting the post himself from an Alonso cross before heading a drilled Willian delivery from the right over the bar.
No more Chelsea goals came, and Patrick van Aanholt’s late strike against his former club set the stage for a slightly anxious finale, but Conte will be satisfied with a result and a performance that brought no fresh drama ahead of Wednesday’s defining test at Camp Nou.
2. Conte faces selection dilemmas ahead of Barcelona
Chelsea’s players have bridled a little at Conte’s tactics in recent weeks; Hazard has made it quite clear that he doesn’t see himself as a false nine, while Cesc Fabregas warned that it would be “suicide” to play defensively against Barcelona at Camp Nou.
Conte has demonstrated many times that he will stand or fall on his own decisions regardless of the potential backlash, but recent performances have left him with some serious thinking — and possibly re-thinking — to do.
All things being equal, Chelsea’s best approach against Barcelona would probably be to replicate the 3-5-2 system that underpinned their best performance of the season against Atletico Madrid in September, the last time they dominated and picked apart elite opponents.
But neither Alvaro Morata nor Tiemoue Bakayoko are anywhere near the form of autumn, and doing so would necessitate dropping Willian to the substitutes’ bench. The Brazilian is in the most prolific scoring stretch of his Chelsea career with five goals in his last five matches, and his ability to carry the ball at speed in transition is one of the biggest weapons Conte has in his arsenal.
Equally tempting would be to repeat the 3-4-3 counter-attacking strategy that caused Ernesto Valverde’s men so many problems at Stamford Bridge, where Hazard floated menacingly from a central role and Willian was agonisingly unlucky not to come away with a hat trick.
Yet the limits of that approach were exposed in dramatic fashion by Manchester City. If no route to Hazard’s feet can be found he becomes a disillusioned spectator at the head of a toothless team imprisoned in their own half. Giroud is rounding nicely into shape, and his chemistry with Chelsea’s wide creators is increasing with every minute on the pitch.
A week after their limp surrender at the Etihad, Chelsea reminded Conte how convincing they can be when they play with purpose on the front foot, even if Barcelona are more than capable of making them pay for the level of ambition they showed against Palace.
These are just a few of the thoughts that will be whirring around in Conte’s head as he finalises his game plan for Wednesday, and the choice he faces is the most important one he will make this season. On recent evidence, bravery may well be the best policy.
3. Palace set for pressure-filled run-in
Crystal Palace’s winter revival, which saw them suffer just one Premier League defeat in 12 matches from mid-November to mid-January, feels like a distant memory. Roy Hodgson’s men entered Stamford Bridge mired in a relegation dogfight and, despite spirited resistance, they left just the same.
Lining up in a back four did not help; Hodgson appears to be the only Premier League manager who has not realised that the attacking potential of Conte’s 3-4-3 is maximised when his wing-backs are given space to attack and time to cross.
Palace defended like a team winless in its previous six Premier League outings and did not react tactically to Chelsea’s superiority. Only wayward final passes and wasteful finishing prevented the scoreline from becoming lopsided long before Van Aanholt surged forward to score in the final minute.
On the plus side, Zaha’s introduction transformed their attacking threat in the second half, and the Ivory Coast international appears ready to be at his talismanic best in the decisive final weeks of the season. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, ineligible here, should also be in position to contribute soon.
Palace’s run-in is also an advantage. Liverpool are the only top-six opponent they have left to face, while five of their last eight games are against fellow relegation rivals. The sense remains that this team boast more talent than those around them, together with an experienced coach very capable of organising them.
Only time will tell if that will be enough.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.