Chelsea were made to work hard and left it late, but returned to Premier League action with a win by beating Crystal Palace in our first match as world champions.
The Blues were wearing the badge on our shirts earned with last week's FIFA Club World Cup victory, but Abu Dhabi felt a long way away as we kicked off in the cold, wind and rain of Selhurst Park for this game, and for a long time it looked like we would be unable to overcome our opponents or the conditions to get the three points.
Early chances went begging for both teams, as Christian Pulisic couldn't control his volley on the stretch from Hakim Ziyech's teasing cross and N'Golo Kante fired straight at the keeper after being found brilliantly by Malang Sarr, while Wilfried Zaha was the culprit on two occasions for the home team.
It was already starting to look like it wouldn't be Chelsea's day when Hakim Ziyech stuck in the rebound from Romelu Lukaku's saved shot, only to have the goal ruled out by VAR for offside, but Ziyech hadn't given up and popped up at the back post in the 89th minute to volley in Marcos Alonso's deep cross and give us the win.
Thomas Tuchel made four changes to the side which had triumphed in the FIFA Club World Cup a week ago. The back three and goalkeeper retained their places, albeit with Andreas Christensen shifting to right-back in a back four on this occasion, with Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger the centre-backs ahead of Edouard Mendy.
With Reece James and Antonio Rudiger being joined on the injury list by Cesar Azpilicueta and Callum Hudson-Odoi there were no wing-backs, instead Malang Sarr featuring in as a left-back. Jorginho came in as captain in place of Mateo Kovacic, taking on the deep midfield role, while Christian Pulisic was introduced in a central role ahead of him, alongside N'Golo Kante.
Romelu Lukaku continued as the central striker and his fellow scorer in the Club World Cup final, Kai Havertz, also retained his place on the left wing, but Mason Mount was ruled out by the injury he suffered in Abu Dhabi, being replaced by Hakim Ziyech on the right.
Welcome back to winter
The Blues were left in no doubt that we were back in England in February following our exploits at the FIFA Club World Cup, as we arrived at Selhurst Park amid a heavy downpour. Although the rain eased off just before kick-off, the wind and the cold remained to leave the glamour of Abu Dhabi a distant memory as the newly crowned world champions attempted to keep our momentum going back in domestic action.
Crystal Palace showed some early threat through a clear plan to get the ball to Wilfried Zaha quickly on the counter-attack. First he tried to go it alone but got the ball tangled under his feet when he attempted one step-over too many in the box, but the second time he fed Michael Olise in space on the right and his low shot wasn’t too far away from the bottom left corner, with Mendy seemingly beaten.
Chelsea were the ones disappointed not to be in the lead before the opening 10 minutes were over, though. Our first chance came from good work by the right corner flag from Ziyech, who turned back and delivered a teasing cross with his left which found its way through to Pulisic at the back post, but he was at full stretch and couldn’t direct his volley at goal.
Not long afterwards Vicente Guaita was making his first save, to deny Rudiger a potential Goal of the Season contender. The defender lined up a shot from a long way out, but his powerful drive was dipping and moving in the wind as it headed for the top corner, needing an excellent stop to tip it around the post for a corner.
It wasn’t one-way traffic by any means, but the Blues were starting to have an increasing influence on the game and pushing into the final third more often. However, when the next chance did arrive it didn’t come via any spell of prolonged possession high up the pitch, but a brilliant piece of play by Sarr.
There didn’t seem to be much on for the left-back when he received a square pass from Rudiger on the halfway line, but he wrong-footed Jordan Ayew and charged forward into the space that created, before sliding a perfectly weighted through-ball into the path of Kante in the penalty area. It would have been a fine goal to open the scoring at Selhurst Park, but Kante’s shot was too close to Guaita to beat the goalkeeper.
Nervy moments before the break
Guaita saved again from Lukaku after the Belgian was put through by Ziyech, although the offside flag was then raised anyway, before Sarr scuffed a shot from the edge of the box that bounced harmlessly wide of the far post, and that was about as good as it got for the visiting Blues in the last 15 minutes of the first half.
We still needed to be wary of Palace’s threat on the counter and from set-pieces, too, as shown when Christensen had to be strong to stop former Chelsea defender Marc Guehi getting his head on one corner in a dangerous position at the back post.
Palace nearly took the lead in controversial circumstances right on the brink of half-time. Pulisic went down under a challenge that looked like a certain foul in the centre of the pitch, but the referee waved play on, allowing the Eagles to feed the ball to Zaha in acres of space on the left. Thankfully the Ivory Coast international rolled his shot wide despite having plenty of time to pick his spot, allowing the Blues to breathe a sigh of relief.
Scrappy start to the second half
Given the way he denied Rudiger, Lukaku and Kante in the first half, the Blues won’t have been too disappointed to see Guaita remain in the home changing room for the second, being replaced as Palace goalkeeper by Jack Butland.
The new keeper didn’t have much to do early on, though, as the home side tried to close down Chelsea high up the pitch and put pressure on us early in the second period. That resulted in a fairly scrappy start to the half, with neither team keeping possession for long and the quality of play dipping as a result.
It didn’t increase the amount of action, though, as a long-range effort by Olise that flew over Mendy’s crossbar was as close as either team came to testing the opposition goalkeeper in the opening 10 minutes.
Our own start to the second half was summed up when we had our first attempt at goal 15 minutes in, from a free-kick after Havertz’s promising run had been halted illegally just outside the box, but Ziyech could only smash his effort, and the follow-up volley, into the defensive wall.
Shaking things up
With around 25 minutes remaining, and after a short pause in play while the referee separated a small scuffle between Lukaku and Joachim Andersen, who had stuck to the Belgian like glue all afternoon, the game did start to calm down and settle into a pattern of play, although the balance was much more even than it had been in the first half and we were yet to test substitute goalkeeper Butland.
In an attempt to change that fact, Thomas Tuchel opted to use all three substitutions with just over 15 minutes left to go, with Marcos Alonso, Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all being introduced. It nearly had an instant impact, as Lukaku burst into space and fired a shot at goal, which Butland palmed into the path of Ziyech to bury the rebound, but Lukaku was then deemed to have been offside following a VAR review.
There wasn’t much in the way of goalmouth action for a while after that, although Havertz flashed a header over the bar from a whipped Ziyech cross, but it turned out Chelsea were just waiting for our moment.
There was less than a minute of the initial 90 remaining when the Blues struck, and it was through Ziyech again from a very similar position to the one he'd had ruled out, although on this occasion there was no hint of an offside. It was one of Tuchel’s three substitutes who provided the assist, Alonso crossing deep beyond the back post from the left touchline, where Ziyech was coming in to side-foot a composed volley past Butland from a difficult angle.
We had to withstand some late pressure as Palace tried to salvage a point from the game, mostly through a succession of free-kicks, with the exception of a low Zaha drive that skimmed past Mendy’s left-hand post. But we had found our breakthrough too late for the home team to mount much of a response, meaning we left Selhurst Park with a hard-earned three points.
We are in Champions League action in midweek, with Lille the visitors to Stamford Bridge for the first leg of our last-16 tie at 8pm on Tuesday 22 February. Then we are off to Wembley for the chance to win more silverware in the Carabao Cup final against Liverpool on Sunday 27 February, kick-off at 4.30pm.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Mendy; Christensen, Thiago Silva, Rudiger, Sarr (Alonso 74); Jorginho (c) (Loftus-Cheek 74); Ziyech, Kante (Kovacic 74), Pulisic, Havertz; LukakuUnused subs: Kepa, Chalobah, Saul, Kenedy, Vale, WernerBooked: Sarr 62, Havertz 90+2, Pulisic 90+3Scorer: Ziyech 89
Crystal Palace (4-3-3): Guaita (Butland h-t); Clyne, Guehi, Andersen, Mitchell; McArthur (c) (Mateta 90+1), Kouyate, Schlupp; Olise, Ayew (Eze 85), ZahaUnused subs: Adaramola, Kelly, Hughes, Milivojevic, Benteke, EdouardBooked: Olise 68
Referee: David Coote