Chelsea closed to within two points of Premier League leaders Arsenal, but endured an uncomfortable afternoon against relegation-strugglers Crystal Palace. Struggling for form of late, Chelsea were again far from convincing, but, unlike against Stoke City last week, they were able to claim what could be a vital three points. Fernando Torres and Ramires provided the goals in the first-half, either side of a fine equalizer from Marouane Chamakh.
Once more, Jose Mourinho will again be concerned by how fragile his side looked defensively. The visitors, on the back of their dramatic upturn in for under Tony Pulis, came close on several occasions to getting back on level terms once more in the second half. And, while Chelsea dominated possession and had Eden Hazard in fine form, they again lacked any real presence up front, with Torres all-but anonymous apart for his goal.
Given their struggles, Mourinho may be somewhat perplexed that his side are now within striking distance of the Premier League summit heading into their clash with Arsenal a week on Monday. Currently, they are playing with a very un-Mourinho-like efficiency, but if they can get things right then there is much about which to be optimistic in this roller-coaster Premier League season.
Chelsea were off to a good start on Saturday, going in front in the 16th minute. Making the most of his role in the center of Chelsea’s attacking midfield three, Willian struck a fine effort from 25 yards that Julian Speroni in the Crystal Palace goal could only help onto the post and Torres’s reactions were impressively rapid as he was on hand to tuck away the rebound.
Chelsea continued to dominate possession and look dangerous going forward. Branislav Ivanovic showed up his lack of attacking acumen dragging a shot wide when bursting through into the box. Yet, as they have done repeatedly in recent weeks, Chelsea also looked vulnerable on their defensive end.
And Palace, having just lost midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi to injury, stunned the Stamford Bridge crowd by getting back on level terms in the 29th minute. Jason Puncheon found full-back Joel Ward marauding forward down the left and his drilled cross caught John Terry standing off his man to allow Chamakh to fire a crisp volley past an unmoved Petr Cech.
Suddenly Chelsea were involved in a real contest. In Hazard, though, they had someone playing sublimely, repeatedly tricking and teasing his way in from the left. His threat played a big part in Chelsea going back in front. The Belgian attracted three Palace players to him on the left as he threatened to come in and unleash a shot. Instead he laid a pass back to Ramires 25 yards out and the Brazilian fired the ball into the net for a memorable first Premier League goal of the season.
Hazard almost created a third too before the break, but Willian was unable to capitalize from his teammates’ pull-back.
Chelsea threatened again at the start of the second half, with Juan Mata failing to strike cleanly at the near post, before the Spaniard displayed understandable disappointment to be withdrawn just past the hour mark.
Increasingly, though, Chelsea lacked assuredness with their lead and their vulnerability at the back came to the fore time and again. Puncheon saw a shot saved by Cech after turning Cesar Azpilicueta inside and out. Crosses into the box were a particular area of concern for the home side. On an incredible three occasions from set-pieces Damien Delaney should have done better when getting his header to the ball but failing to seriously test Cech. In between, substitute Yannick Bolasie headed poorly over after being found completely unmarked at the back post.
The closest Palace came, though, was in a desperate goal-mouth scramble 13 minutes from the end. After David Luiz and Michael Essien failed to clear at the near post, Stuart O’Keefe saw his first shot beat Cech but be stopped by John Terry before his follow up was kept out by Branislav Ivanovic.
Perhaps reawakened at seeing the fragility of their advantage laid, Chelsea reawakened in the closing minutes. The score-line could have ended up undeservedly more comfortable, but Ramires fluffed a simple chance before Speroni saved outstandingly from substitutes Andre Schurrle and Demba Ba. Chelsea still got the win, but it was far more uncomfortable than it needed to be.