On a weekend when Chelsea would have been playing Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, we recall a victory over the Eagles that continued an amazing winning run en route to the 2016/17 Premier League title...
The derby victory at Crystal Palace on 17 December 2016 was narrower than it might have been, but rarely in doubt. Alan Pardew’s relegation-haunted Eagles never looked like the home side with the fifth-highest goalscoring record in the top-flight.
A year into the new American ownership Palace’s squad presented more of a threat to their coach’s future than they did to the Premier League leaders.
Even though the south Londoners had salvaged just five points from the wreckage of their previous ten outings, they could not be faulted for effort in this derby. Their problem was that Antonio Conte’s team simply matched then exceeded them in every department.
Even the high-vis winter ball struggled to stand out in a low-lying Selhurst fog, but there was a clarity of purpose in the Blues’ approach, with Nemanja Matić back from suspension and Eden Hazard returned from injury, despite Conte’s concerns about the 25-year-old’s workload.
The hosts arguably had the better opportunity during competitive but unexciting opening exchanges. On one occasion Martin Kelly eluded wing-back Marcos Alonso and laid the ball back, only for recalled Jason Puncheon to miscue feebly eight yards out. That was their chance squandered.
Once the first blood was drawn, there would be no way back for the Glaziers. The goal came from a patient counterattack. Wilfried Zaha was robbed on the Chelsea left and Eden Hazard, encouraging movement, tapped the ball to César Azpilicueta. Licensed to advance from his right centre-back role, the Spaniard paced forward and prodded one of his effective crosses through the fog towards Diego Costa, entering the box.
By the time he met the ball, the striker was at the corner of the six-yard box, easily holding off the double challenge of Scott Dann and Martin Kelly, and looping his header over stranded goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy. Damien Delaney arrived too late to hook the ball off the line.
N’Golo Kante, Cesc Fàbregas, and Alonso all forced Hennessy into saves as the visitors began to constrict the life from the Eagles, and the Spain wing-back’s dipping free kick was only just off target, rebounding off the bar as the clock ran down.
None changed the final score but, equalling a club record eleventh consecutive win and the third in succession by the only goal of the game, the Blues roared nine clear of Liverpool and the chasing pack.
‘There is simply no stopping Chelsea,’ conceded the Guardian. ‘They had already proved they can dazzle on this run. This derby demanded more brawn, but the outcome was still the same. They are steeled by an air of invincibility at present.’
Other than the failure to covert more chances, the only disappointments were further yellows for Costa and Kante, ruling both out of the Boxing Day festivities against Bournemouth. The boss was not fazed.
‘To come here and take on Crystal Palace, this physical game, and have the right behaviour, understand the way to win, to fight in the same way Palace do is not simple for me,’ Conte commented afterwards.
‘You can see players with great talent but also with great commitment: this will to fight for every ball. Something changed in me, in the players, in the club, with those defeats by Liverpool and at Arsenal [earlier that season].’
That great talent and commitment would take the Italian and his players all the way to the title just a few months later.