On a misty lunchtime in deepest south London, a Diego Costa goal secured a club-record equalling 11th straight league win for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.
Our unstoppable centre-forward scored our first headed goal of the season, and his 50th Chelsea goal overall, shortly before half-time, and that proved enough for a third 1-0 win in a row and a minimum six-point lead in the table going into Christmas.
It was by no means an easy win in this London derby however, as both sides maybe showed signs of tiredness at the end of a draining week. Thibaut Courtois had to make saves, although not as diffcult as the ones on Wednesday, and it was the Blues who came closest to scoring the game’s second goal when Marcos Alonso struck woodwork late on.
There is now an eight-day recovery period until we play again although there is an added complication for the Boxing Day game of no Diego Costa or N’Golo Kante for then, following bookings today.
For this game at Selhurst Park, Eden Hazard was back from his one-game injury absence and Nemanja Matic also returned to the line up having started on the bench at Sunderland. Conte had indicated 24 hours earlier that this may be a game to rest odd players at the end of a busy week, and Pedro was among the subs this time so Willian started for the second game running. Cesc Fabregas returned to the bench.
The stage was set for the chance to put more pressure on our challenges as we kicked off the first Premier League game of the weekend, and early Chelsea pressure came down our left. There was hope of a chance inside 10 minutes when Kante was alert to intercepting Damien Delaney’s pass forward from the back but Hazard did not read our midfielder’s subsequent intentions.
Soon after, Kante was spoken to by the ref but the booking that means a suspension came later. There was however a yellow card shown to Palace full-back Joel Ward on 16 minutes when he took down Hazard just outside the area, following a smart back heel from Willian. That had been our best move yet, but David Luiz’s subsequent free-kick was deflected wide safely for the home team.
It was Palace who had the first real chance of the game, when Martin Kelly’s run into space wide on the right was spotted but his low cross was screwed wide by Jason Puncheon.
Midway through the half came the booking that does mean a Chelsea change at centre-forward for Bournemouth on Boxing Day. Diego Costa was carded for a trip so will serve the one-match ban he has for so long avoided.
Chelsea were under a degree of pressure at this stage of the game, but Hazard was beginning to make his runs and Palace were resorting to giving away free-kicks to stop him.
Still the chances did not come however and the first half drifted on with regular interruptions for fouls from both sides.
Chelsea did break well with 10 minutes to go to the interval but Marcos Alonso, who found himself at the spearhead, tried a pass to play Willian in on goal but Palace cut it out.
At the other end, James McArthur beat David Luiz and Gary Cahill to a header but sent it wide. Puncheon also sent a free-kick over Thibaut Courtois’s crossbar.
Up to this point it had been a more disjointed display from the Blues than our usual flow, but showing the mark of worthy league leaders, we still found a way to go in at half-time ahead, and it was the less likely Cesar Azpilicueta who was the instigator, advancing high up the pitch from the back three and hanging a cross into the box for Diego Costa to make seasonal mincemeat of his marker Scott Dann and nod his side 1-0 up.
Courtois, who had again undergone a half-time warm-up with goalkeeper coach Gianluca Spinelli was soon called into action in the second half when Yohan Cabaye struck a low shot on target. He then made a towering claim of a high ball and sent us on a counter-attack with a smart roll-out but was barged in the back by Palace’s Delaney who was chasing past him. It clearly hurt our keeper.
Kante had the next shot of the game and caught it well but Wayne Hennessey got behind the swerving ball.
Palace responded with their best spell and it was during that when Kante picked up his fifth booking of the season.
Victor Moses, playing against his former club, had not been seen in the attacking third as much as usual or as often as Alonso in this game, but he did combine well with Willian just past the hour but had his shot blocked. That was Willian’s last contribution. Fabregas was his replacement.
Moses was soon on the attack again and crossed well which led to Alonso going close with a volley. Fabregas skimmed a shot across the turf but straight at the keeper as the Blues gained control again, although Christian Benteke turned Cahill but Courtois saved comfortably.
Two Chelsea counter-attacks followed. Kante for the second time in the game called the Palace keeper into action after good play from Diego Costa, Hazard and Moses, and then Alonso forced Hennessey into a good save.
One man whose legs were showing no signs of fatigue was Kante who acted as a one-man press on one occasion to keep the home side on the back foot.
Branislav Ivanovic came on for the final 10 minutes in place of Moses who received plenty of applause from both sets of fans.
With seven minutes to go we came our closest to a second goal when David Luiz left free-kick duties to Alonso after Hazard had been crudely chopped down by Delaney, and the Spaniard hit the underside of the bar. Cahill could not get on the end of the rebound but the insurance of a second goal was not needed as five minutes of stoppage passed with the only alarm a free-kick given away which substitute Andros Townsend thankfully skied.
The 11-games sequence is a new outright Chelsea record for a winning run within one season, beating the previous best in the league title-winning year of 2005/06.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses (Ivanovic 79), Kante, Matic, Alonso; Willian (Fabregas 64), Diego Costa (Batshuayi 89), Hazard.
Unused subs Begovic, Zouma, Chalobah, Pedro.
Booked Diego Costa 22, Kante 60, Fabregas 90+2.
Scorer Diego Costa 44
Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey; Kelly, Dann (c), Delaney, Ward; McArthur, Ledley; Zaha, Cabaye (Campbell 79), Puncheon (Townsend 77); Benteke.
Unused subs Speroni, Fryers, Husin, Mutch, Lee.
Booked Ward 17, Cabaye 65.
Referee Jon Moss