Zaha dazzles as Crystal Palace end wretched run by stunning Chelsea
LONDON - Three quick thoughts on Crystal Palace 2-1 Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. Palace dent Chelsea's title charge
This is why football is the greatest. When a team starts a season with seven defeats, not managing to muster a goal, then have to face the reigning champions in their next game, all logic points to the run being extended to eight games. But Crystal Palace defied such logic on Saturday, holding on to beat Chelsea 2-1 at Selhurst Park.
Wilfried Zaha, making his first start since the opening day, was the catalyst for the victory. Pressed into action as an auxiliary centre-forward, Zaha scored what turned out to be the winner just before half time, after Tiemoue Bakayoko had cancelled out Palace's opener, a Cesar Azpilicueta own-goal. At the final whistle, the stands shook with relief: you'd imagine even the eagle that flies around the ground before games breathed deeply.
If you'd arrived at Selhurst Park with no prior knowledge of the season, you wouldn't have thought Palace had managed to avoid scoring a goal all season. Their fans, often the loudest in the Premier League anyway, were buoyant, and their team equally sparky, Andros Townsend and Zaha forming a makeshift but undeniably dynamic front pairing.
And after 11 minutes their play was rewarded, if extremely fortunately. Townsend got to the byline, cut it back into the middle, David Luiz bundled the ball against Yohan Cabaye's thigh. It was heading wide, but flicked off Cesar Azpilicueta and into the net. Palace were ahead, a mere 731 minutes after their last Premier League goal, scored by Patrick van Aanholt against a doomed Hull City in May.
But it was in part the full-back who helped pop their bubble seven minutes later. Van Aanholt was supposed to be marking Bakayoko from a Cesc Fabregas corner, but instead seemed to take a brief nap on the edge of the six-yard box, allowing the French midfielder to head into the ground and up into the top corner. It was a heartbreakingly simple and careless way to ruin what had been a hugely positive start.
Chelsea had the better chances for the rest of the half, but Palace stayed in the game, and moments before the break they took the lead. Mamadou Sakho smartly dispossessed a dithering Willian and played in Zaha, who skipped past Azpilicueta, stumbled but kept his balance and slotted into the net.
Chelsea played with more purpose after the break, even if the relatively early substitution of Michy Batshuayi displayed exactly how little Antonio Conte trusts the Belgian. Chelsea pressed further forwards and despite carving out a few presentable chances, they couldn't break through.
With a few minutes to go, Van Aanholt missed a golden chance for Palace, putting a rebound from a Townsend shot wide with the goal begging to be breached. But despite Sakho trying a back heeled clearance from his own six-yard box in injury-time, Palace held on.
2. Flat champions struggle with injuries
A busy few weeks lie ahead for Chelsea. They have six games in the next three weeks, including having to play Roma twice and the visit of Manchester United at the start of November. Their next free midweek will come in the second week of November, and while their other league fixtures aren't the most testing in their schedule, until then Conte and his players will just have to hold their breath and get through it.
That might be even more difficult considering the injuries in an already shallow squad. Alvaro Morata should be back for the first of those Champions League games against Roma on Wednesday, but N'Golo Kante could miss that entire run -- Danny Drinkwater too and Victor Moses limped off here with a hamstring problem. Throw in Conte's apparent suspicion of Batshuayi and his options don't look particularly enticing.
This week, Conte mentioned the possibility of having to use Ethan Ampadu, a midfielder signed from Exeter in the summer who only turned 17 a few weeks ago. Charly Musonda came on against Palace, when in an ideal world Conte might have wanted to keep him on the sidelines after seeming to criticise his manager on Instagram recently.
It is, of course, a little tricky to have excessive sympathy for a Chelsea manager when it comes to resources, but this only serves to emphasise why Conte was so unimpressed by their summer transfer business. A couple of injuries and he has to rely on untried youngsters and players he doesn't really want.
This could prove to be a crucial phase of the season for Chelsea, and they'll have to get through it while significantly hampered.
3. Zaha return boosts Eagles' hopes
If you pay attention to things like expected goals, or perhaps if you've simply watched Crystal Palace play this season, you'll know they haven't been nearly as bad as their record suggested. They have been creating enough chances but have just lacked either a little luck or the ruthlessness to finish them off.
They got both in the first half against Chelsea, as their opening goal bounced in off some unfortunate part of Azpilicueta, while their second came from a smart finish by the returning Zaha. That Zaha has been missing since the first game of the season is a big reason for their struggles.
He doesn't just offer pace, which is obvious, but also a dynamism in his thinking: he might dazzle with tricks and stepovers, but to see him run at an opposition defence is to see a man who has plotted the most direct path to goal, and uses his physical gifts to get him there as quickly as possible.
Roy Hodgson struck a note of mild caution before the match. "I have seen him change a game," Hodgson said. "I know he has the ability and capability. But we have to be careful ... At the moment, to put all that on Wilfried Zaha's plate would be totally wrong. If we're not careful, he'll be trying too hard; trying to do it all by himself. Once players start to do that, their own game suffers. He's got to be an important cog in a well-oiled machine and our job is to make certain that the machine is well enough oiled to produce that X-Factor."
It was a typically Hodgsonian way of saying "Yeah, this guy's our best player, but we have to help him out."
But as his goal and general play showed against Chelsea, if Palace are to clamber out of this mess Zaha will be a big reason for it.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.