The FourFourTwo Preview: Crystal Palace vs Chelsea
Managerial love-in between two gaffers needing points for different reasons.
The Premier League fixture computer hasn't been too kind to Crystal Palace of late, sending them all the way to the North East on successive Saturdays, so the familiar din of Selhurst Park's Holmesdale Fanatics will no doubt be repetitive music to their ears come Saturday afternoon.
CRYSTAL PALACE FORM
- Newcastle 1-0 Palace (Prem)
- S'land 0-0 Palace (Prem)
- Palace 0-1 So'ton (Prem)
- Swansea 1-1 Palace (Prem)
- Palace 0-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- Chelsea 2-0 Galatasaray (CL)
- Aston Villa 1-0 Chelsea (Prem)
- Chelsea 4-0 Spurs (Prem)
- Fulham 1-3 Chelsea (Prem)
Jose Mourinho paid tribute to Palace's "fantastic, fantastic, fantastic fans" after they made some serious noise at Stamford Bridge in December, but those who made the round trips to Sunderland (500 miles) and Newcastle (560 miles) didn't have too much to cheer about: zero goals, one point and an injury-time Papiss Cisse header denying them a draw at St James' Park.
Palace's last league win took them up to 14th in the table, but worryingly for the division's lowest scorers that was six games ago, and injuries to a couple of key strikers won't help their cause as they sit just one place above the drop zone.
Already missing top scorer Marouane Chamakh, this week fellow front-man Dwight Gayle was ruled out for several games with an ankle injury. It leaves manager Tony Pulis with a straight choice between Glenn Murray and Cameron Jerome – two strikers who have each scored just once in the league all season.
There were no such scoring woes for Mourinho's men last weekend; the Blues again sharing the goals around everybody except Fernando Torres. Mourinho has instilled incredible work-rate and belief into his squad in recent months, and once again his charges held their nerve on the big occasion, sticking six past Arsenal.
Chelsea's watertight defence was going through a leaky patch when they last met Palace, with only Petr Cech's late heroics to deny Stuart O'Keefe seeing the Blues edge the game 2-1.
But plenty has changed for the Blues since then, not least the re-signing of Nemanja Matic, whose towering presence in front of the back four has seen the west Londoners move up a gear.
“His way of playing brings stability into the team,” said Mourinho after the Arsenal win. "It is difficult for him to lose the ball, but at the same time he is not the kind of guy to play any square passes. He recovers a lot of balls in a clean way, and he doesn’t make fouls in dangerous positions.”
Indeed, Matic has featured in every game since making his debut against Manchester United, with Ramires (makes fouls in dangerous positions), David Luiz (loses the ball) and John Obi Mikel (lots of square passes) now all playing second-fiddle to the Serb. As for Frank Lampard, even Jose knows better than to subtly undermine a club legend in a press conference.
But for all their dominance at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea haven't quite found the consistency away from home that was a hallmark of Mourinho's first Blues team, with the recent defeat at Aston Villa handing the initiative back to Manchester City in the title race.
The last time Palace beat Chelsea was in 1990 – Ian Wright was on target in a 2-1 win at Selhurst Park – and naturally the visitors will start Saturday's game as strong favourites, but the Blues' occasional away-day wobble means it's no forgone conclusion.
Chamakh (hamstring) and Gayle (ankle) aside, Pulis has no other concerns going into the game. For Chelsea, Samuel Eto'o will miss out with a hamstring injury picked up against Arsenal, but Mourinho is hopeful the Cameroonian will be back in time for their Champions League quarter-final first leg against PSG on April 2.
Ramires serves the second of his three-game suspension for his red card at Villa, although Willian returns following his sending off in the same game. Ashley Cole's injury will deny him another week on the bench.
Key battle: Julian Speroni vs Fernando Torres
"Fernando, without scoring a goal, had a very good performance with great movement for the team," said Mourinho following an impressive 80 minutes for the Spaniard against Arsenal, and with Eto'o injured Torres will surely start ahead of Demba Ba. Against the Gunners he set up the fourth for Oscar and almost scored himself just after the restart. But for all his good work outside the box, it was an all-too familiar story in front of goal, with the ruthlessness in one-on-ones that once defined Torres' game deserting him yet again.
On Saturday it'll be Speroni bidding to deny the Chelsea No.9. The Argentine stopper was in fine form against Newcastle, reacting sharply to keep out two close-range headers, and had no chance with Cisse's late winner. After a decade at Selhurst Park, the 34-year-old terrace favourite could leave as a free agent in the summer after being told this week that his future is on hold until the end of the season. “I'd love to stay at Palace as my family are really settled here, but we will have to see how the talks go," he admitted. Reserve keeper Wayne Hennessey will no doubt be keeping a close eye on developments.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Chelsea 2-1 Palace (Prem, Dec 13)
- Chelsea 4-1 Palace (Prem, Mar 05)
- Palace 0-2 Chelsea (Prem, Aug 04)
- Chelsea 6-2 Palace (Prem, Mar 98)
- Palace 0-3 Chelsea (Prem, Sep 97)
After all the frosty handshakes between Mourinho and Arsene Wenger last week, it'll be back-slapping and cap-grabbing between the Portuguese and Pulis at Selhurst Park (well, maybe less of the cap-grabbing, but that would be amusing).
Mourinho has so much respect for his opposite number, he even has the Welshman down as manager of the year. “We can find a special coach in somebody who got a team in difficult circumstances and did something special – I’m thinking about Pulis,” said Mourinho.
“He got Crystal Palace from bottom and many managers didn’t want to accept the job because the feeling was the team had no chance. But Pulis got the team and, step by step, he is doing an amazing job.”
“It’s lovely that other managers speak of you in that way,” cooed Pulis in response. “I met [Mourinho] for the first time this year when we played Chelsea and I found him very hospitable. He’s good company and good fun – the wine was very nice!" Oh Jose, you big flirt.
Facts and figures
- Palace have picked up just 1 point from 14 games against the top 9 this season and they’ve scored just 2 goals in the process.
- 9 of Palace’s last 11 home matches have had fewer than 3 goals.
- Chelsea have been level at half-time in 6 of their last 8 away matches.
- 7 of Chelsea’s last 9 wins have been by at least 2 clear goals and 7 of 9 have been to nil.
After a cagey first half, Chelsea to turn the screw before Pulis digs out the wine glasses. 0-2.