Zaha 34 Benteke 72
Giroud 6 Pulisic 27 Abraham 71
BY SAM SMITH
When Christian Pulisic hammered in Chelsea’s second goal midway through the first half, there was a fear that Crystal Palace would succumb to a defeat even heavier than Saturday’s 3-0 collapse at Leicester City.
But the turnaround that followed in this derby will provide a much-needed confidence boost for a Palace side who are without a win in four matches – the longest losing streak of Roy Hodgson’s reign.
Had Scott Dann’s injury-time header found the corner of the net instead of bouncing agonisingly against the post, there could have been few arguments that a point was wholly undeserved.
The Eagles had already lost Gary Cahill in the build up to Olivier Giroud opening the scoring. The former Blues man tumbled as he chased a long ball and limped off clutching his hamstring. Willian took advantage and squared for Giroud to tap in via a slight deflection off Joel Ward.
Hodgson does not expect Cahill to be back before the end of the season. Losing their best defender, 34, will have repercussions for the South Londoners in their final four matches but Mamadou Sakho – dropped following his mistake at Leicester – came on and did well.
Despite their adversity, Palace battled on and, in the end, should have taken a point against a Chelsea side who are now in an excellent position to secure Champions League qualification.
If the Eagles’ performance against the Foxes in the game prior was uninspiring, dull and lacking in cohesion, this was the complete opposite. It was Palace’s best display since the resumption of football given the quality of opposition.
Their upturn in momentum after the worrying start was sparked by a moment of brilliance by Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian collected a loose ball 35 yards from goal, strode forwards and unleashed an unstoppable drive into the roof of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s net.
Zaha has had a tough season. The winger has not had the same effect on games to which Palace fans had become accustomed in previous campaigns.
But his goal prompted an improved performance for the man long linked with a move to Stamford Bridge.
When Zaha performs well, his team-mates generally follow.
The 27-year-old had his best spells of this game positioned on the right of the front three, on the opposite side to which Hodgson usually opts to play him. Zaha had the beating of Cesar Azpilicueta on most occasions and supplied a couple of excellent crosses. Given his improved performance, this may be a position he plays for the remainder of the season, with Jordan Ayew swapping to the left.
The hosts dominated possession for most of the second half, in complete contrast to how they rarely entered Leicester’s territory in the game before.
But this is a Blues side now renowned for their devastating counter-attacks under the management of Frank Lampard. When you play high up against a team so adept at picking holes and exploiting space, you run the risk of being caught out.
Chelsea’s third goal was a counter-attack crafted in South London. Lewisham’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek – a former Palace loanee – raced away and dinked a pass through to fellow substitute Tammy Abraham – born in Camberwell – who slid the ball in via the post.
It was apt that this was on the day when Palace announced their promotion to category one academy status. Chairman Steve Parish said it will be an opportunity to take advantage of the plethora of talent being developed in the local area. In Palace’s ideal world, the next generation of Loftus-Cheeks and Abrahams will be coming through their youth system.
Christian Benteke tapped in his second goal of the campaign almost immediately after.
The Belgian was impressive throughout the game, linking well with Zaha and Ayew.
The 29-year-old was involved less in passive build-up play and his game was simplified – he stayed central and was only involved when the Eagles entered the final third. It is no surprise that he had more chances than usual and scored.
If Benteke continues the good form that has seen him become a more important player for Palace since the turn of the year, the maligned forward will no doubt score more goals before the end of the campaign.
For Hodgson, that is another positive from a vastly-improved display.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita 5, Ward 6, Dann 6, Cahill (Sakho 8, 6), Van Aanholt 6, McArthur 6 (McCarthy 80), Milivojevic 5 (Meyer 89), Kouyate 6, Zaha 7, Benteke 7, Ayew 5 (Townsend 80). Not used: Hennessey, Woods, Mitchell, Riedewald, Pierrick.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga 6, James 6, Christensen 6, Zouma 7, Azpilicueta 5, Mount 7, Gilmour 6 (Jorginho 80), Barkley 6 (Loftus-Cheek 65 6), Willian 5, Giroud 6 (Abraham 65 6), Pulisic. Not used: Caballero, Rudiger, Alonso, Pedro, Hudson-Odoi, Batshuayi.
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