When Chelsea made light of Aston Villa’s superb home record to win the teams’ FA Cup replay 3-1 last Wednesday, it was achieved thanks to their best performance of the season and pointed to a change in fortunes.
Five days on, a tepid first-half display away against Crystal Palace threatened to derail that sense of progress. Coming up against a side enduring their own difficulties, Chelsea were laboured in possession, created no chances of note (more on that below) and fell behind to Jefferson Lerma’s superb long-range strike.
Fortunately for Mauricio Pochettino — a manager who can rival Palace’s Roy Hodgson in the under-pressure stakes — Conor Gallagher equalised shortly after the break and Chelsea were much improved in the second half. They carried more of a threat from that point on and snatched all three points in stoppage time when Gallagher stroked in his second, before Enzo Fernandez added an even later third.
Victory means Chelsea have now recorded 13 consecutive wins against Palace and, more importantly, moves them up to 10th in the table and adds to the sense that momentum can be built going into the latter stages of the season.
It’s 13 league wins in a row v Palace
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Simon Johnson answers the key questions from the game at Selhurst Park.
Is Gallagher starting to repay his manager’s faith?
Pochettino should be relieved that Gallagher likes playing at Selhurst Park so much.
The England international came into the game with fond memories of the south London stadium. It was while he was on loan from Chelsea at Palace in the 2021-22 season that he proved he could thrive at the highest level. An impressive eight goals from 34 Premier League appearances made many Palace fans hope he could be signed on a permanent basis, but to no avail.
Gallagher became a member of Chelsea’s senior squad the following season instead and it was in a match at Palace that he scored his first goal for the club, sending a superb shot into the top corner in the 90th minute to secure the three points in October 2022.
Goals have been a lot harder to find for Gallagher this season. He actually went 34 matches, and nine months, without scoring until he got the opener at Villa Park last week.
Concerns over his lack of finishing prowess will have eased a little, after he did so much to rescue this win for his side. The quality of his strikes in the second half was not that of a man who has forgotten how to score. He dispatched crosses from Malo Gusto and then Cole Palmer past Dean Henderson to great effect.
No one celebrated more than Pochettino on the touchline. Those strikes turned what was looking like a night of despair into one of great relief, with Fernandez adding a late third to make the scoreline very flattering.
Why were Chelsea so sluggish in the first half?
Chelsea have made a habit of struggling to break down teams who sit deep and defend, but they took it to a whole new level in the opening 45 minutes here.
It was an exhibition of passing safely from one team-mate to another, with very little speed or intent in each attempt.
There was a real danger of Chelsea going the entire half without a single attempt on goal, which would have been a great cause of embarrassment. A late scuffed effort by Gallagher in stoppage time — it drifted harmlessly past the far post — spared their blushes. Sort of.
Yet the visitors still managed to achieve an unwanted Premier League record. They racked up a remarkable 420 passes without a shot on target — no team in the division have made that many passes while failing to hit the target since that data began to be collected in the 2003-04 season.
Fortunately for Chelsea, this terrible streak did not carry on far into the second half, with Gallagher finding the net within two minutes of the restart.
Was Thiago Silva’s recall the right decision?
First, it is important to stress Pochettino did not have much choice, because Benoit Badiashile was ruled out with a groin problem, while Levi Colwill and Trevoh Chalobah were only deemed fit enough for the bench after their own injury issues.
But the debate over Silva’s role in the side was always going to come under scrutiny, given his absence from the starting XI at Villa Park last Wednesday coincided with Chelsea’s best performance of the season.
Silva has been a wonderful servant for Chelsea since his summer 2020 arrival but at 39 years old, his game is inevitably going to be on the slower side. In that replay against Villa, Chelsea were able to play a lot higher up the pitch due to having Axel Disasi and Badiashile operating next to each other at centre-back.
With Silva back in the line-up last night, Chelsea sat a lot deeper and that allowed Palace plenty of time to drop deep themselves and frustrate the visitors’ attacking players.
In that first half, Chelsea were also more susceptible to Palace’s speed on the counter-attack.
Still, it would be wrong to blame their abject showing in the first half on Silva alone and he could do little to prevent Lerma scoring the opener after half an hour. A number of their players were underwhelming and lacking ideas.
And Silva showed all his quality and experience just before the hour in getting back to block Jean-Philippe Mateta’s shot. It was his last contribution, however, as he instantly signalled to the bench he had to come off and Colwill replaced him.
One now has to wonder just how many more games Silva will play for Chelsea. His contract expires at the end of the season and it is not expected to be renewed.
A time on the sidelines with whatever now ails him will give Pochettino the chance to go with younger players instead — if they stay fit, of course.
What did Pochettino say?
“We saw two different sides,” said Pochettino. “In the first half we were so flat and I was so disappointed. In the second half we were much better and I am very pleased with how we finished the game. We deserved the three points.
“The energy wasn’t the right energy and the intensity we showed was not great.
“We dominated but we played so slowly and the way we conceded, we cannot allow to give this type of option to the opponent.
“It’s a massive win. That is our challenge — to be consistent — but this type of fixture will help us build our confidence.”
What next for Chelsea?
Saturday, February 17: Manchester City (A), Premier League, 5.30pm GMT, 12.30pm ET
The evidence of this season suggests Chelsea will have their moments at the Etihad before getting soundly beaten as Pochettino fumes at his players in his technical area. Let’s see…
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)