Chelsea Return to Best Ahead of Barcelona as Palace Woes Continue

Willian at Stamford Bridge, London, March 10. GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty

In the end, there was some fight from Crystal Palace—just not the kind Roy Hodgson will have wanted. First, it was Marcos Alonso that James Tomkins was grappling with and then Alvaro Morata, as frustrations boiled over and the threat of relegation continues to linger over the South London club.

This visit to Stamford Bridge saw Palace come up against a top-six team for the third consecutive game, and there were few surprises as they all ended in defeat, leaving Hodgson's team a point from safety with eight games to go.

Here, Chelsea trampled all over their London rivals throughout the first-half and by the break the game was over, allowing Antonio Conte to start resting his stars as he turned his attention to Wednesday's (March 14) crucial trip to Barcelona.

After a bleak two weeks of traveling to Manchester, which saw a grand total of zero points gained against United and City, Chelsea's hopes of finishing in the top-four were stung. This offered a glimmer of hope. Apart from the visits of Tottenham and Liverpool, Chelsea's run-in is fairly kind and hopes of a top-four finish remain, especially with the devastating form of their attack.

If it weren't for Willian's brilliance, Eden Hazard would have been the man of the match. Relieved to be back in the number 10 role, the Belgian forward enjoyed much of the ball by dropping deep, linking up with Willian and Olivier Giroud, who spearheaded the attack. They toyed with Palace at times and but for a late goal from their former defender Patrick van Aanholt, it would have been a comfortable evening.

But there had been an uncertainty in West London ahead of kick-off, as the evening drew in and the clouds gathered over Stamford Bridge. How would their team perform here? Had Conte still the support of his players? In his program notes, the Italian had promised supporters that they "will give everything to reach the top four in the Premier League." But after the abject performance at the Etihad Stadium last Sunday (March 4), with defeat to City leaving Chelsea five points off the Champions League places, that was not a certainty.

"Thrilling since 1905" was written in giant letters on the walls of Stamford Bridge and around the inside of the ground, as Chelsea celebrated their 113th year. The fans who traveled to the north-west last weekend may have disagreed. But, here, Chelsea was back. They dominated the ball and had seven attempts at Wayne Hennessey's goal in the opening 20 minutes, albeit without truly testing the Palace goalkeeper.

As expected, Palace spent much of the first half penned in their own half, Hodgson attempting to organize his team to frustrate Chelsea. They congested the center of the pitch and reduced Chelsea to efforts from distance early on, but it didn't take long for the hosts to close in. Giroud came close to turning in a long-range shot from N'Golo Kante and then the French striker headed over.

Palace was struggling to contain Chelsea, so the opening goal was far from a surprise. A contender for player of the year at Stamford Bridge this season, Willian cut in from the right and struck a shot from outside the area that nicked Martin Kelly and beat Wayne Hennessey, going in off the inside of the post. Conte afforded himself a small fist-pump as Willian scored his fifth goal in as many games. The Brazilian has had a hand in 17 goals in his last 18 starts.

Palace's only reply came from their typically noisy following in the Shed End. "1-0 and you still don't sing," they chanted. But Hodgson's team was giving the fans little to sing about themselves, especially with the nature of the second goal. Marcos Alonso was allowed to maraud down the left wing and square to the edge of the box. Willian's dummy fell to the feet of Hazard and he swiftly helped it on to Davide Zappacosta. What followed was calamitous for the visiting fans behind the Palace goal, as they watched Kelly's clearance from Zappacosta's shot cannon back off Hennessey and rebound off the defender and into the goal. Conte's team was giving the home fans something to sing about. "You're going down with the West Ham," they sung to Palace, who remain one point from safety.

Chelsea was putting an end to Palace's tag as their bogey team, having won on their last two visits to Stamford Bridge and won the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park in October—a victory that ended a run of seven consecutive defeats in the Premier League. Those wins were largely down to the work of Wilfred Zaha, who got the winner in South London.

He had to settle for a place on the bench this time, returning from a month out with knee ligament damage. But with Palace offering little going forward in the first half, Hodgson brought the 25-year-old on at the break, and his impact was immediate.

Zaha caught Andreas Christensen dallying in his own half and played in Alexander Sørloth, one on one with Courtois. The 22-year-old striker looked to beat Courtois at his near post but saw his powerful effort cannon off the post. Zaha had brought much-needed energy to Palace's attack and had given Chelsea's defense something to think about, other than their upcoming trip to Catalonia.

Conte had made a string of changes ahead of the second leg of their Champions League last-16 game against Barcelona, with Gary Cahill and Zappacosta coming in and Giroud leading the line. The French striker was replaced by Alvaro Morata in the 72nd minute but may have pushed himself into contention for a start at the Camp Nou.

His aerial presence injected panic into the Palace defense throughout the evening, and he came close to scoring his first league goal for Chelsea during a counter in the 67th minute but his shot cannoned back off the post.

Palace pushed forward and had the ball in the back of the net through Sørloth but saw it ruled out for offside. One minute from time, Van Aaanholt converted to give Palace a glimmer of hope but it was too little, too late. Hodgson and Palace will need a proper fight if they are to survive relegation.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill (c); Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas Pedro 87), Alonso; Willian, Giroud (Morata 72), Hazard (Bakayoko 87).

Subs not used: Caballero, Ampadu, Emerson, Moses.

Crystal Palace: Hennessey; Wan-Bissaka, Kelly, Tomkins, Van Aanholt; Townsend (Lee 81), Milivojevic, McArthur, Schlupp (Riedewald 75); Sørloth, Benteke (Zaha 45).

Subs not used: Cavalieri, Sakho, Souare, Fosu-Mensah.

Man of the match: Willian