Chelsea moved second in the Premier League table as two goals from Alvaro Morata and another from Pedro saw them 3-1 winners over Crystal Palace.
The mark of champions is to win when not playing well and for long periods, Chelsea were far from convincing at a subdued Stamford Bridge.
This tepid London Derby was more thriller in vanilla than a knockout Premier League clash and never looked like producing too many fireworks until Andros Townsend levelled eight minutes into the second half with Palace’s first worthwhile shot.
AS IT HAPPENED: Chelsea v Crystal Palace
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It sparked the Blues, who looked a little too over-confident at times, such was their superiority in possession.
Early on, Chelsea huffed and puffed in their attempts to break down a well-organised Palace who, to their credit, started on the offensive. The Blues had problems adjusting to Palace’s narrow four-man-midfield and the trickery of Wilfried Zaha, who caused the home fans to take a sharp intake of breath every time he touched the ball.
Palace defended well and compressed the space between the lines when without the ball, relying on the break. And for a while, it worked. Townsend and Max Mayer made dangerous runs into the box in the first 10 minutes and Meyer curled an effort over from a low Zaha cross.
Chelsea left Eden Hazard on the bench, along with club captain Gary Cahill, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mateo Kovacic and Cesc Fabregas. It meant the Blues lacked a little creativity and they looked uneasy when giving the ball away, which happened all to often in a sloppy first half-hour.
But as the first period drifted on, Chelsea began to work out the Palace formation and duly adjusted, taking a grip of the game and having the bulk of the possession, without testing Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey in the first half hour. In fact, it took Chelsea 32 minutes to get a worthwhile shot on goal – but they made it count.
Pedro found himself on the angle of the 18-yard box, but his pass could not pick out Morata. Palace initially cleared their lines, but Pedro, at the second attempt, fired in a low cross and Morata reacted quickly to lash it in on the volley. The finish was excellent and it brought a rather quiet Stamford Bridge to life.
Chelsea turned the screw in a bid to get a second before the break and had the ball in the net moments later, but Willian was at least a yard offside and the attempt was ruled out. Barkley then smashed an attempt over on his weaker left foot, and Morata was guilty of a glaring miss when Willian’s drilled cross was headed back by Alonso, only for the Spaniard to head over from no more than five yards out.
Palace’s lack of goals has been a problem, yet the visitors rocked the hosts in the 53rd minute with a leveller from their first real chance. Townsend played a neat wall-pass with James McArthur and took advantage of Chelsea’s Achilles heel – the lack of pace at the heart of their defence. Townsend skipped clear of the plodding David Luis and as Antonio Rudiger could not get back to cover, the England winger fired into Kepa’s right-hand post.
Not much went Luis’ way. Soon after, he headed straight at Hennessy from a cross which allowed the keeper to make an easy save, and from the resulting corner, headed over.
Maurizio Sarri was animated on the sidelines and was forced into a double change just after the hour mark, with Hazard and Mateo Kovacic providing more attacking intent – and Hazard made an immediate impact.
He delivered a free-kick to the near post which eluded everyone but Morata, who had pulled away at the far post. The Spaniard took a delicate touch and then provided a superb finish through a ruck of bodies to make it 2-1 with 65 minutes gone.
The relief was palpable and Palace hearts were broken.
The game was over five minutes later when Morata let Alonso’s low cross run to Pedro, who had made a run from deep and effortlessly found the bottom corner with one touch.
It was game over. Chelsea strolled through the last 20 minutes, always looked the more likely to score and, in the end, it proved another comfortable victory, which had looked unlikely in the first half-hour.
Chelsea were efficient, rather than ruthless – Morata should have had a hat-trick but inexplicably elected to try and chip Hennessey with the last kick of the game and fluffed his lines – but they now sit second on goal difference from Liverpool.
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