For the second time in their last three matches, Chelsea failed to come home with any points after an away match to a team in the lower half of the table. Two weeks after losing to Aston Villa, Jose Mourinho’s side dropped all three points in another 1-0 loss to relegation-battling Crystal Palace. The setback leaves them one point ahead of Liverpool, who have a chance to go top tomorrow against Spurs. The home side collected their first win since the eighth of February and moved themselves five points clear of the relegation zone.
Mourinho selected his regular back four in front of Petr Cech in goal with Gary Cahill partnering with John Terry at center-back, Branislav Ivanovic at right-back and Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back. From Chelsea’s usual defensive base the front six formed up into a 4-3-3 with Fernando Torres up top, Andre Schurrle to his right and Eden Hazard, left. The midfield three consisted of Nemanja Matic, David Luiz and Frank Lampard.
Crystal Palace set out in fairly standard 4-4-1-1 with Cameron Jerome the lone front man supported by Joe Ledley in behind. Behind them, Palace had two banks of four sitting relatively deep and compact with Jason Puncheon on the right flank, Yannick Bolasie over on the left and the central midfield pairing of Kagisho Dikgacoi and Mile Jedinak in front of a back four of Adrian Mariappa at right-back, Damien Delaney and Scott Dann as the centre-back pairing and Joel Ward at leftback. In net, the Argentinian, Julian Speroni.
The match started out as expected with a Tony Pulis side going against the league leaders, as they only offered up Jerome and Ledley to defend in Chelsea’s half where their light pressure easily allowed Terry, Cahill, Matic and Luiz to keep possession and circulate the ball with a constant 4v2 advantage. Chelsea were cautious going forward and easily stifled by the compactness of the Palace defensive block. Palace were immediately all too happy to play long from their own half and look for Jerome to get onto long passes and hold up play.
The first bit of incisive play from either side came from a pair of crosses into Chelsea’s area from their left flank as Puncheon and Mariappa were able to get into good positions working short 1-2s between themselves. Early on Chelsea had a few threatening runs from David Luiz surging forward from midfield but with no end product, his first shot from outside the area was particularly poor and he found Hazard with a pass that took him into the area, but he crossed poorly from a wide angle. In the opening 15 minutes Chelsea lacked any real creativity to move into the final third and stagnated possession usually ended with a poor long range pass aimed at one of the front three.
In the seventeenth minute, however, Chelsea were able to catch Palace up field and break through Luiz finding Torres, who passed to a surging Azpilicueta on the left, and wound up with Azpilicueta sliding a pass across the face of goal for Schurrle, and only the presence of Delaney kept Chelsea from opening the scoring. Aside from that break, Chelsea were unable to either catch Palace up field or break them down when they had settled into their two banks of eight men, and often nine, behind the ball. Palace were very compact allowing Chelsea space out wide and at the back but sufficiently clogging the central areas.
Lampard attempted to open up Palace by dropping deep to collect the ball and look long to either Torres or Schurrle making runs, but he only completed 6 of 11 passes into the final third and only one of his four attempted long passes found it’s target in the opening half. Chelsea’s forwards were making straight runs to get onto straight passes, instead of angled runs, and Palace dealt with the threat easily. They did adapt as the half went on, Torres started dropping off the back line and Hazard and Schurrle began to move centrally as all three looked to find space between the lines and move possession forward. It did allow them to move possession forward, but they were still prevented from creating promising situations in Palace’s area.
Despite Palace’s plan to sit deep and compact, they still created scoring opportunities for themselves. On 27 minutes, Bolasie took a shot from the left of Chelsea’s area hitting the side netting after a short cross from Puncheon that was once again created from Mariappa getting in advance of Puncheon just outside the area where he laid in a pass for Puncheon to run onto. In the 30th minute, Palace broke 3v3 against Chelsea and Bolasie was unlucky not to get a penalty as he was taken down by Cahill inside the area. Cahill came through Bolasie’s leg before getting the ball but the referee thought it was a clean sliding tackle and play continued.
Shortly before half-time Palace created a shot once again from Mariappa getting forward. This time, Jerome dropped off to the right on the end of a long pass, found the overlapping Mariappa who crossed and the ball fell to Puncheon, who had cut inside as Jerome went wide. At the break, Palace had done well to keep Chelsea from building momentum with a strong defensive effort and sufficient counter attack play to give themselves a chance to at least come away with a point.
Chelsea needed a change and the most obvious player to bring on was Oscar; if anyone was going to open Palace up and supply Torres, Schurrle or Hazard with bit of magic, it was him. Luiz was indeed sacrificed for Oscar, for injury reasons, but even barring Luiz being hurt, surely Mourinho would have made the change at half-time or shortly after. Unfortunately for Oscar and Chelsea, they would be behind seven minutes into the second half and the complexion of game drastically changed.
Shortly before the goal Palace had a good opportunity headed wide by Jerome from a Bolasie cross near to the byline. The next cross from Palace also came from their left but this time it was from the left-back, Ward, whose intended target Ledley was making a near post run and the run was tracked by Terry, who inadvertently flicked the cross on into his own net. Cech was in a position to catch the cross on it’s original path and once Terry got his head to it, he had no chance to keep it out.
Ward would have seemed the least likely of Palace’s four wide players to provide the game winning cross, as Mariappa and Puncheon were a constant threat, and Bolasie was a nuisance on the left whereas Ward hit just two crosses and offered little going forward throughout. In response to the goal, Mourinho brought on Mohamed Salah in replace of Lampard. Salah went right and Schurrle moved centrally and now Oscar would drop deeper in the middle to collect possession from Matic and the centre-backs.
Now they had their goal and a prospect of at least a draw, Palace gradually dropped deeper and deeper and Chelsea continued to find increasing amounts of space out wide and their centre-backs could creep further and further forward. Palace were now very much 4-5-1, Ledley joined the defensive block more frequently and Jerome became more isolated. Palace came under a tremendous amount of pressure, and by the end they had faced 38 crosses and 13 corners from Chelsea and finished with 33% of the possession.
It is a credit to Pulis that Palace stuck to their defensive assignments as well as they did; rarely did anyone leave a gap or lunge into a tackle or break from the block. But Salah and Oscar did offer what Chelsea were lacking in the first half, Salah found Oscar in the area in a promising position but he was unable to control it well enough to create a chance. In the 73rd minute, Oscar slipped in Hazard with a rare run and through ball that got through the Palace lines and Hazard had a shot that should have leveled the match but Speroni made a brilliant save and Chelsea’s best chance was batted away.
Ivanovic had oceans of space down Chelsea’s right flank, whether Bolasie was too tired to track him or simply leaving him the space to tighten up and cover the central areas is debatable but the space was there for him. All six of his crosses, all in the second half, failed to find a target and although he did complete 18 of 22 passes in the final third in the second half just one was placed into the area.
Chelsea brought on Demba Ba for Schurrle and went 4-4-2 as Bolasie came off for Stuart O’Keefe for Palace. The formations at this point didn’t matter as Chelsea were pouring forward leaving only the centre-backs behind and Palace had everyone behind the ball. What is most impressive is that Palace nearly scored two more goals after going ahead. The final half hour of the match was very entertaining as Jerome and Puncheon broke in a 2v4 and Puncheon cut through the Chelsea defence with an excellent right to left run and got onto the end of a pass from Jerome only to miss just wide of the far post. That was in the 62 minute, in the 74th minute Jerome broke directly again with Jedinak joining him and Jerome was denied a goal by the near post.
Chelsea’s best remaining chance came from a poor attempted back pass from Stuart to Speroni, which was intercepted by Torres whose attempted chip missed the target. That summed up Chelsea’s day pretty well, they were unable to unlock Palace’s defence often enough and after going behind left themselves vulnerable to counter attacks and were probably lucky not to concede a second. Chelsea’s title hopes have taken a massive hit with these two losses against Villa and Palace and both results come as a real shock considering they sandwich a 6-0 hammering of Arsenal.