Hapless Chelsea papering over defensive cracks
Chelsea 2 Crystal Palace 1
If champions play badly and win then Chelsea are going to canter to the Premier League title. They were very poor as they beat Crystal Palace yesterday and in the final seconds Jose Mourinho and his backroom team were pleading for referee Mark Clattenburg to blow the final whistle.
When he did there was relief at Stamford Bridge at a result which moved them within two points of Arsenal. The league leaders might not have looked like potential winners in defeat at the Etihad but Chelsea were even less convincing in victory against a Palace side which took the game to Mourinho's side in the second half and had the chances to take a point.
Even when Fernando Torres gave Chelsea the lead, Palace played with the confidence of a team which had won three of its previous four games. The outstanding Marouane Chamakh equalised but if Ramires' goal proved to be decisive there was nothing certain about Chelsea's victory. Mourinho spent much of the time afterwards praising Palace's performance and their supporters but while Tony Pulis's side deserved a lot of credit, they had too easily revealed Chelsea's defensive vulnerability.
The goals all came in the first half, even if the second was more dramatic. Chelsea had dealt with Palace's bright start and, after their most impressive spell of patient passing, they took the lead. They would have anticipated Palace tiring at some stage but the early movement of the home side brought a swift reward when Willian moved inside from the left and shot from outside the box. Julian Speroni touched the shot onto the post but Fernando Torres moved in and swept in the rebound.
Torres was reborn again, leaving Damien Delaney on the ground minutes later as he sprinted into the box before Branislav Ivanovic burst forward but pulled his shot wide. Like all of Torres' rebirths, this one didn't last long.
Kagisho Dikgacoi had offered some protection for the Palace defenders in the opening minutes but Palace were forced into an early substitution when he went off with an injury but it didn't affect Palace and his replacement Stuart O'Keefe became more influential as the game went on.
Almost immediately, and quite improbably, Palace had equalised and -- this may be the strangest thing about their revival -- inevitably it was Chamakh with the goal.
Palace moved the ball across the field and when Joel Ward crossed from the left, Chamakh's side-footed finish showed the touch of a man in form. "Wenger doesn't buy players who can't play and the kid can play," Pulis said later of a player who has been central to their good form.
Palace went on the attack again but they couldn't stay level. Cameron Jerome had lost the ball after a tangle with Ramires which had Pulis looking for a free-kick. He was angrier moments later when Hazard spotted Ramires on the edge of the box and played a perfectly weighted ball back to him before Ramires curled it beautifully past Speroni.
Hazard again got free on the left and from an almost identical position set up Willian but his shot was weaker and Mourinho kicked a bag in the dugout in frustration.
Mourinho had managed to persuade people last week that the problem was his strikeforce but his defence remained vulnerable too in a way not associated with Mourinho. Palace nearly broke through on goal after Branislav Ivanovic took a risky throw level with his own penalty area, Juan Mata played it causally backwards and David Luiz miskicked.
Luiz hadn't recovered from being nutmegged by Jerome while Chamakh remained a surreal presence, booked for wrestling Michael Essien to the ground.
There had been enough evidence in the first half that Chelsea's weaknesses were at the back and Palace were dangerous on the counter-attack with Jason Puncheon going close with a shot after Palace had got swiftly forward.
There was very little of Mourinho in Chelsea's defending. Delaney should have scored twice from free-kicks, heading the first one into Cech's hands and then putting over as Chelsea looked stranded and confused. Delaney went close again from a corner as Chelsea looked unsure what to do.
Chamakh was at the centre of everything but was lucky to stay on the field after another tangle with Essien which could have brought a second booking.
At times, it was quite a fight. O'Keefe could have capped an outstanding performance with a goal but John Terry cleared on the line then O'Keefe fought to stab in the rebound before Ivanovic booted the ball away.
Chelsea looked hapless in much of what they did and when substitute Oscar won a challenge, the ball broke for Ramires. He was through on goal but miskicked and Speroni gathered gratefully.
He was even more grateful moments later although he contributed more saving from six yards from subs Andre Schurrle and Demba Ba.
"You're not special anymore," the Palace fans sang in Mourinho's direction at the end before he applauded them at the final whistle. The home crowd's anxiety was palpable yet Chelsea can go top if they win at Arsenal next Monday night, despite their problems. "I'm not surprised because it's in our nature," Mourinho said afterwards. Same as it ever was.