Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 2
Chelsea: Fabregas (5’)
Palace: Zaha (9'), C Benteke (11')
Man of the match: Mamadou Sakho (Crystal Palace)
LONDON // With just over four minutes on the clock, it looked like being business as usual.
After a run of 13 consecutive victories in front of their own supporters, Chelsea surprised no one by taking the lead against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
What followed certainly came as a shock. The visitors hit back almost immediately with two quick-fire goals of their own, then somehow managed to hang on for the remaining 79 minutes to wrap up an unlikely 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.
It was a result which will be celebrated by fans of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City as much as those who follow Palace. A rare defeat against opponents from outside the top six — Antonio Conte’s men’s previous losses this season came in clashes with Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham — saw their lead at the top cut to seven points.
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Chelsea remain overwhelming favourites to win the Premier League title, but the race may not be the foregone conclusion that many considered it to be, particularly as Manchester City visit Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.
The hosts got off to the perfect start, pinning Palace back and breaking the deadlock through Cesc Fabregas early on. Eden Hazard was once again the man who made the difference, the Belgian leaving Joel Ward with twisted blood before setting up his teammate, who had ghosted into the box unmarked.
Before Chelsea could press home their advantage, though, Palace were level. Wilfried Zaha, surrounded by three defenders, somehow managed to squeeze a shot into the bottom corner of the net, before laying on Christian Benteke for a second just 91 seconds later. Palace broke forward at speed after pinching possession inside their own half, with Benteke delightfully dinking the ball over Thibaut Courtois for his first goal in six games.
It was always going to be a backs-to-the-wall job for Palace from there, and Chelsea duly pushed forward in search of an equaliser. Hazard buzzed around the final third and created a number of excellent opportunities for his colleagues, but Mamadou Sakho led a resilient defensive unit and Wayne Hennessey proved an unbeatable figure between the sticks.
It is no coincidence that Palace’s run of four successive successes has corresponded with the arrival of Sakho in the heart of the backline. The Liverpool loanee was once again terrific, keeping a firm handle on Diego Costa throughout and also showcasing impressive composure on the ball.
He and holding midfielder Luka Milivojevic have added solidity to a team that was far too easy to play through earlier in the campaign, while Zaha continues to dazzle with his pace and trickery. The Ivory Coast international was used in a more central role for much of this match, taking up positions behind Benteke in a 4-4-1-1 formation, and he proved a constant thorn in the side of David Luiz and Gary Cahill.
Despite those positives for Palace, Chelsea had more than enough chances to avoid a first home defeat since September. Their profligacy ultimately cost them, but it is important that they get this setback out of their system as soon as possible.
As Conte said afterwards, considering his team’s midweek meeting with Manchester City: “In England an easy game doesn’t exist ... every game will be tough from now until the end.”
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