Thursday 20 September 2018

Zaha return breathes life into Palace

Crystal Palace 2 Chelsea 1

Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace scores his sides second goal past Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images
Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace scores his sides second goal past Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea. Photo: Getty Images

Dominic Fifield

Something remarkable happened at 3.11pm in this rather angst-ridden corner of south London. That was the moment Andros Townsend burst to the byline and pulled a cross back for Yohan Cabaye to collect on the run, David Luiz's touch propelling the loose ball back on to the Frenchman who, almost inadvertently, poked it goal-wards. Thibaut Courtois would still have blocked it but, in a quirk of favourable fate out of keeping with Crystal Palace's campaign to date, the ball flicked off Cesar Azpilicueta on the edge of the six-yard box and in.

The majority inside this arena erupted almost in disbelief, the home side's coaches and medics spilling off the bench in celebration. It had been 731 minutes, a drought stretching back to the final game of last season, since staff and supporters of this club last celebrated a league goal.

Roy Hodgson, Manager of Crystal Palace shows appreciation to the fans. Photo: Getty Images
Roy Hodgson, Manager of Crystal Palace shows appreciation to the fans. Photo: Getty Images

All those dreadful records had been accumulating ever since as three managers tried and failed to find a way through but, by the end here, the dearth of rewards had almost gone forgotten as Palace cherished a first league victory since May.

None of it made much sense. Chelsea, off-colour for long periods, now languish nine points from the top of the table having been beaten by a team who had previously been forlorn at the foot. Roy Hodgson mustered a polite smile at the final whistle, but Antonio Conte could only manage a scowl. This was horrible preparation for Roma in the Champions League.

The visitors had actually been overrun in that opening quarter-hour, their head coach a picture of agitation in his technical area as his players, shorn of the injured N'Golo Kanté, rather ambled in pursuit of the ball. There was no real rhythm to their game until the hosts' lead jolted them from their slumbers.

Palace should still have dealt with Cesc Fabregas' corner but, instead, left Tiemoue Bakayoko free to nod down and in, beyond Julian Speroni. There would be no first clean sheet of the term to celebrate upon the Argentinian goalkeeper's return for a first league appearance since May 2016. A team that scores so infrequently can ill afford concessions so soft.

Crystal Palace players celebrate victory. Photo: Getty Images
Crystal Palace players celebrate victory. Photo: Getty Images

Chelsea can rarely have mustered 45 minutes of football as disjointed and slack as this first-half display, with the manner in which Conte pounded down the touchline for the dressing room at the break indicative of his mood. They trailed again by then, victims of Wilfried Zaha's return to Palace's ranks after a two-month absence.

The Ivorian had been excellent, tormenting the visitors' back three and seeing shots fly marginally wide or blocked at the last. It was Mamadou Sakho who provided him with his moment, robbing Willian and bustling forward before clipping Zaha into the penalty area. The forward wriggled between Azpilicueta and the substitute Davide Zappacosta - on for a hamstrung Victor Moses - to finish across Courtois and into the corner.

There had to be an improvement from the champions thereafter, their new-found sense of urgency summed up by Fabregas belting a shot on to the crossbar from 20 yards shortly after the break.

Michy Batshuayi, so disappointing as a lone forward while Tammy Abraham was scoring a brace in distant Swansea, departed with an angry yelp to the heavens, but Pedro offered far more of an energetic threat thereafter. Another substitute, Charly Musonda, should have equalised, while Speroni did well to claim another Marcos Alonso header.

The contest had long since become an exercise in attack versus defence, Palace's forays forward only ever squeezed out on the counter-attack though quite how Patrick van Aanholt, a former Chelsea player, managed to snatch a shot wide of a gaping net after Courtois spilled Townsend's drive defied belief. Those in the Holmesdale end wailed their frustration but, by the end, that was forgotten.

Palace have finally broken their duck. For Chelsea, a second successive league defeat will lead to painful introspection.

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