LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Chelsea 1-2 Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Chelsea slip up in pursuit of glory
For weeks, manager Antonio Conte has provided a wary commentary on Chelsea’s serene progress toward the Premier League title. Saturday’s shock defeat to Crystal Palace, coupled with Tottenham’s 2-0 win at Burnley, which cut the gap to seven points, justified his caution.
One big reason, Conte argues, is that the rest of the Premier League “don’t want to accept that Chelsea are champions” just yet. Tottenham, stalking the champion favorites in second, certainly don’t.
A campaign remarkably unaffected by injuries is beginning to take its toll on Conte’s small group of trusted starters, who found no way back after Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke canceled out Cesc Fabregas’ opener.
Victor Moses, withdrawn from Nigeria duty with a calf injury, was replaced by Pedro Rodriguez at wing-back, though fellow doubts Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa all made it into the starting XI and showed no ill effects as Chelsea began with the confidence of champions-in-waiting.
Fabregas, lining up in Pedro’s usual position in the front three, dropped deeper in order to link play, and a typical pass sent Hazard racing away on the left. Isolated against Joel Ward, the Belgian effortlessly worked a yard of space before sending in a low cross the Spaniard tapped in.
Palace, who arrived at Stamford Bridge having won three Premier League matches in a row without conceding, were not cowed by being cut open inside five minutes. They pushed up smartly, building their attacks around the hold-up play of Benteke, and were swiftly rewarded.
A poor Pedro clearance out of defence enabled Palace to find Zaha on the edge of the penalty area, and the Ivory Coast international worked his way from left to right, snaking between Chelsea defenders before squeezing a low shot beyond Courtois and into the far corner.
Three minutes later they were ahead. Benteke led a two-man break and found Zaha, who returned the favour to put him clean through. The Belgian striker paused to let fellow countryman Thibaut Courtois commit himself, then chipped the ball into an empty net.
The rest of the half and much of the match took on a siege dynamic, as Chelsea peppered Wayne Hennessey with shots and dangerous crosses. Costa was denied from point-blank range and Nemanja Matic from further out as Hazard probed and surged, stinging the Welshman’s palms with one fierce drive.
But still Palace held out, despite injuries to James Tomkins and replacement Scott Dann. They carried a threat in transition and spurned a golden chance to put the game beyond Chelsea in the second half when Courtois tipped Zaha’s low shot wide after Jason Puncheon had sent him clean through.
Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table is down to seven points, and two of their next three matches are against Manchester City and Manchester United.
Perhaps Conte’s cautious outlook was right all along. His team are nowhere near home and dry yet.
2. Defence a cause for concern for Conte
The single biggest factor in Chelsea’s resurgence after the switch to 3-4-3 was the stability of their new-look defence. Conte’s back three of Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta kept 10 clean sheets in 12 Premier League matches, and opponents had to work hard even to get a shot on target.
In the 11 matches since Stoke City breached Chelsea’s defence twice on New Year’s Eve, just two teams have failed to score against the Premier League leaders. Some of the goals against have carried an air of misfortune, but the pattern of defensive decline is now too clear to ignore.
Three sloppy minutes were all it took for Chelsea to concede the two goals that ensured their first Premier League defeat since January, and the scoreline might have been worse had Zaha not twice wasted glorious chances in the final minutes.
Conte will not be alarmed by Chelsea’s attack. This was undoubtedly their least clinical performance in months, but they created enough chances to win five matches. The final 20 minutes of the second half became a pattern of the Italian turning, exasperated with arms outstretched, to his bench after another gilt-edged miss.
But with a dangerous City and vengeful United — defeated 4-0 by the Blues last October — on the horizon, Conte will be worried by the ease with which Palace isolated and ripped through his midfield and back three.
Add that to Benteke’s success in exploiting Chelsea’s long-established aerial weakness and there is plenty for Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho to work with when forming their strategies.
3. Zaha impresses in Palace’s unlikely win
It’s remarkable to think that less than two months ago the prevailing sense around Palace was that this might be the one sinking Premier League ship that manager Sam Allardyce could not steady. Their continued presence in the top flight is guaranteed on this form, and it should be secured in emphatic style.
Palace finally defend with the diligence and determination of an Allardyce team, anchored by a rejuvenated Mamadou Sakho, who was immense here. But it is the presence of Zaha that takes them to a new level of threat.
At Stamford Bridge the 24-year-old’s performance made a mockery of those who suggested he took the easy option by choosing to play his international football with Ivory Coast rather than England. England manager Gareth Southgate has no one who can offer Zaha’s rare blend of pace, trickery and powerful running.
Perhaps in response to critical words from pundit Alan Shearer, who questioned Zaha’s output, there is also significantly more in the way of end product from the former Manchester United man these days. A goal and assist at Stamford Bridge took his season tallies to seven and six respectively, comfortably the best of his Premier League career, and he might have scored a hat trick in the second half.
Palace will be a Premier League team under Allardyce next season and should be a formidable one at that. On this form, Zaha’s next big decision could be whether his talents are now suitably refined for a grander stage.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.