Chelsea further strengthened their position in the Premier League’s top four with victory over Crystal Palace in an entertaining encounter at Selhurst Park, that included a stunning long-range strike from Wilfried Zaha and a rare goal from Christian Benteke.
There was an element of fortune about the game’s opening goal, with Palace defender Gary Cahill pulling up with a match-ending injury to allow Willian to charge into the box unimpeded and set up Olivier Giroud to finish.
But the rest of the match was a testament to the kind of competitive, high-octane, see-saw football that draws so many viewers to the English top flight, even when the grounds are empty of fans.
Twice Chelsea looked to have put the game beyond the home side, first through Christian Pulisic’s rising shot to make it 2-0 in the first half and then via Tammy Abraham’s neat finish with 19 minutes to go to put the Blues 3-1 up.
But this reckoned without the input of Zaha and Benteke.
Zaha’s goal was a superb strike, fiercely fired into the net via the crossbar from an unlikely distance. Benteke’s was more routine, tapped in from point-blank range following a neat move, but almost as surprising, it being his first goal at Selhurst Park since April 2018.
And Palace came within a whisker of snatching a point when Scott Dann’s back-post header struck the inside of the post before Chelsea hacked the ball clear.
Chelsea’s win means they move above Leicester into third place in the table, five points ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United.
With 42 to their name, Palace have too many points to worry about being dragged into a relegation fight, but manager Roy Hodgson and his side will be eager to end a losing streak that has now stretched to four games.
Chelsea get the job done
Chelsea suffered a notable blip when they were beaten at West Ham six days ago, but apart from that their restart has gone pretty much to plan.
A return of 12 points from a possible 15 has ensured they remain firmly in the mix for a place in next season’s Champions League.
They are now above Leicester and have an advantage over the teams below them who pose the biggest threat to their Champions League hopes – Manchester United and Wolves.
Their performance once again showcased the attacking flair Frank Lampard has at his disposal, especially in Willian, who now has a couple of assists to go with the four goals he has scored since the restart, and Pulisic, who scored his third post-lockdown goal.
However, there remains a fragility at the back, with Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen not the most solid of centre-back pairings, although the former did produce a stunning late tackle to deny Benteke.
In front of them, Lampard opted for young midfielder Billy Gilmour in the absence of the injured N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic, which leaves further question marks over the future of Jorginho, who came on for the final 10 minutes but has yet to start a game since football returned.
However, in this compacted season finale and with the end goal in sight, wins are more important that perfect performances.
Lampard said as much himself when speaking to BBC Sport.
“There were moments in the game where our game-management wasn’t great,” said the Chelsea boss. “At 2-0 we can dominate that game and finish it. When we went 3-2 up we had chances to finish the game and were sloppy.
“But at this point, three points is the critical thing.”
Despite the attacking prowess they demonstrated, Lampard felt his side should have made the game more comfortable for themselves in the closing stages.
“For the chances we create we don’t score enough goals,” he added. “It changes the face of a game when you have chances and don’t take them and nerves kick in.
“And you can’t feel secure in football matches if you keep giving goals away. We still have to learn from moments in our game and be better.”
Positives and negatives for Palace
This was probably the best Palace have played during their run of four straight losses and certainly the most threatening they have looked.
A large part of that is down to Zaha.
It has been a frustrating season for the 27-year-old forward, who looked like he might leave Palace last summer but ultimately stayed and has since struggled to recapture the form that had other clubs circling.
But despite his failure to regularly hit the heights of which he is capable, he remains a potent attacking weapon, as he demonstrated with 10 minutes to go in the first half.
More renowned for his speed, driving runs and trickery, his goal was more of a tribute to the Tony Yeboah school of finishing – a rasping effort from an unlikely distance that gave the goalkeeper no chance.
It is only his fourth goal of the season and his first since mid-December.
“When Wilf is in that type of form he shows he is one of the best players in the Premier League,” said Palace boss Roy Hodgson.
“It is good for us because when you have him in that type of form you feel like you have a great chance of winning a match.”
Benteke has fared even worse in front of goal, with this just his second in the league this campaign from 23 appearances, but he showed an awareness that has often been lacking to be in the right place to finish Patrick van Aanholt’s low cross.
Sadly for Palace, on a night of rare recent positives they leave with no points and must now wait to see the extent of Cahill’s injury.
“I thought the fighting spirit, the way we played and the determination means at this moment in time we don’t feel too disappointed,” added Hodgson.
“But three weeks from now people will say that this is another defeat for Palace, it is four in a row and they are playing badly. We need to be strong and know we are not playing badly.”