You probably know the stat already – yes, six of the last seven Premier League champions were top at Christmas, and yes Chelsea have confirmed their place at the summit regardless of what happens against Crystal Palace on Saturday. The omens are good for Antonio Conte and the Blues, but now is not the time for the players to take their foot off the gas.
Our next three fixtures are Palace away and then Bournemouth and Stoke at home, so clearly there is the potential for us to see in the New Year with a colossal lead at the top of the league.
But, as Sunderland proved on Wednesday night, there simply are no easy opponents in the Premier League anymore.
The assignment was made tougher when Eden Hazard pulled out of the match at the eleventh hour and failing to overcome a knock picked up on Saturday, so winning without our main playmaker is another box ticked in the examination of our title credentials.
Sunderland set up in the manner we’d expect; not so much the bus being parked but the whole depot. There were eleven men in red and white shirts behind the ball at all times, and so respect must go to Chelsea for showing the patience to break the Black Cats down, which they did courtesy of Cesc Fabregas’ winner. Indeed, but for some fine saves from Jordan Pickford the 1-0 margin of victory could be greater.
And so to Crystal Palace; a side that can pose plenty of problems in attack but whose defence is more generous than Santa Claus buying a round. The Eagles have conceded 24 goals in their last eight starts….and clearly that is the angle for Chelsea to exploit.
Chelsea Team News
The good news to come out of the camp is that Nemanja Matic was merely rested for the Sunderland game, and is fit and raring to go for Palace.
The suggestion is that Hazard will be fit to return too, with Conte insinuating his absence was for one game only. When asked if the Belgian’s injury was serious prior to Wednesday’s outing, he replied ‘no, I don’t think it is. For this game, though, he can’t play.’
Ordinarily during the busy festive period the temptation would be to rest players, but happily Chelsea’s schedule has been rather kind this season. With no midweek football, mostly, the players remain fresh and in good condition, and a Christmas/New Year schedule with matches on December 17, 26 and 31, plus January 4, is not all that demanding – certainly not as hectic as the calendar can occasionally fall at this time of year. Conte will surely resist the urge to make wholesale changes against a capable Crystal Palace side.
Crystal Palace v Chelsea Head to Head
Well, at least this match is unlikely to fizzle out into a draw. The last time these two sides played out a stalemate was 1995 – some twelve encounters ago, and that is well supported by this year’s vintage; two sides not backward in coming forward.
Of the last ten competitive fixtures, it is Chelsea that have enjoyed the upper hand with eight wins to Palace’s two. The Blues’ 3-0 win at Selhurst Park in January was their fifth in six visits to the ground, and neatly identifies the clear head-to-head advantage we have enjoyed over the Eagles in recent years.
But as we know, it only takes 90 minutes for history to be re-written.
How the Match Will Be Won
W2 D1 L5 GF12 GA12 – that’s Palace’s form at Selhurst Park this term, and you don’t need to be Columbo to see that Alan Pardew’s side are vulnerable on home soil.
Twelve goals conceded – eight of which have come in their last four home encounters – highlights their Achilles Heel, and it is one that the Blues will target with relish. In contrast, they are clearly capable in attack, with Wilfried Zaha in particular in blistering form. His pace and mazy running will need to be marshalled well; perhaps Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill will swap sides so that the quick Spaniard is in direct confrontation with the flying winger.
Clearly, somebody like Christian Benteke is going to thrive on aerial service, and so the task of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso will be to provide plenty of defensive support to prevent Palace’s wingers being able to pick out a cross from the flanks. In the middle, Cahill and David Luiz will need to be as physical as the Belgian powerhouse they are marking.
At the other end, well, a Chelsea attack that has scored in each of their last ten outings will surely enjoy their afternoon’s work against a Palace defence that has conceded in all but one Premier League outing this term. The Blues may concede here, but we would expect them to score at least two in reply.