Chelsea ended 2018 with a narrow away win thanks to N’Golo Kante’s second-half strike.
Kante’s third goal of the season made it two away wins from two over Christmas, closing the gap on the Premier League’s top three and moving us clear of Arsenal following their heavy defeat on Saturday.
It was a deserved three points for Maurizio Sarri’s men who dominated for long periods, albeit without creating too many clear-cut opportunities.
Olivier Giroud had goals ruled out for offside either side of Kante’s strike, which came five minutes into the second half after David Luiz had picked out his intelligent run with a fine pass from deep.
It was the standout moment of a fine personal performance, the Frenchman’s constant running and tackling complemented by his willingness to get forward at every opportunity, linking up well with compatriot Giroud and Eden Hazard.
The striker’s presence meant Eden Hazard started on the left of the front three, with Willian on the right. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who last season was a Palace loanee, was sidelined through injury.
Palace came into this one three games unbeaten with a high-profile win at Manchester City followed by a goalless draw against Cardiff on Boxing Day. Goals have been a problem this season for Roy Hodgson’s side, and it showed here at Selhurst Park, their three combative central midfielders there to stem Chelsea’s attacking intents rather than create opportunities for those ahead of them.
Given their defensive setup, it was no surprise we had to wait for our first chance, which came from a set-piece. Willian’s free-kick found Toni Rudiger in space but facing the wrong way, the German was only able to flick the ball on across goal and into the arms of Vincente Guaita, the home goalkeeper.
Giroud’s hold-up play created two opportunities for Kante to shoot from range shortly afterwards, but otherwise, there was little action of note inside the opening half an hour.
The Blues were enjoying the lion’s share of possession but were finding it difficult to break through a well-organised Palace, often finding the route to goal blocked outside the box.
It was there a Palace player tracking him tripped Hazard, and from the resulting free-kick, Willian clipped the outside of the post with a bending effort.
A minute later, the Brazilian saw another effort turned around the post and from his corner, Ross Barkley struck the same upright with an improvised volley over his shoulder. Finally, we were getting on top, but the half-time whistle arrived before we could convert that pressure into a goal.
No matter, because five minutes after the restart, we were in front.
Palace had been content to sit deep and allow our centre-backs possession, but they were caught out by a fantastic lofted pass from David Luiz, who spotted Kante’s run in behind and picked out the Frenchman inside the box.
Kante still had plenty of work to do but took his chance like a natural, chesting the ball down before hitting a left-footed half-volley on the turn that had too much power for Guaita.
It was an excellent Chelsea goal that highlighted David Luiz’s ability come forward and pick a pass, as well as Kante’s increasing knack of popping up in goalscoring positions – it was his second goal of the month, and the second time he had broken the deadlock in a goalless game.
Those expecting Palace to change their approach and come out to attack the Blues would have been disappointed. We remained in control and enjoying the majority of possession, but largely to little effect.
On 65 minutes, Willian forced a smart low save from Guaita after good work from Giroud and Hazard, and then Barkley’s curling effort was deflected wide as we sought a second to kill the game.
Palace eventually made a change with just over 20 minutes remaining, Connor Wickham coming on up front to provide a focal point for attacks.
It was still Chelsea though that looked the more likely to score. Giroud did have the ball in the net when he latched onto a Willian pass and smashed high into the net, but he was ruled offside in a tight call.
The same had happened in the first half, and he was unlucky to see both decisions go against him. Also unfortunate was the injury he sustained to his ankle, prompting his withdrawal and the introduction of Alvaro Morata from the bench.
With time ticking away, Palace began to exert a little pressure on the Chelsea backline as our defence dropped inevitably deeper, but still were unable to create a meaningful opportunity.
David Luiz and Rudiger were dominant at the back, and the one time they did lose out, when James Tomkins won a far-post header late on, Wickham fired his team’s best chance high over the bar.
It was as close as the home side would come, and we were able to hang on comfortably for an important win which cements our spot in the top four.
We begin 2019 with a home game against Southampton on Wednesday night.
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita; Wan-Bissaka, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt; Milivojevic (c), Kouyate (Meyer 78), McArthur; Townsend, Zaha, Schlupp (Wickham 69).
Unused subs: Hennessey, Ward, Dann, Puncheon, Ayew.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), David Luiz, Rudiger, Alonso; Kante, Jorginho, Barkley (Kovacic 88); Willian (Emerson 82), Giroud (Morata 76), Hazard.
Unused subs: Caballero, Zappacosta, Christensen, Ampadu.
Scorer Kante 51
Booked Alonso 10
Referee Craig Pawson