Blues show 'big balls' to win without Diego: how Stats Zone saw Crystal Palace 1-2 Chelsea
Jose Mourinho had insisted he didn't need to learn the lesson of March's 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, one of three costly slip-ups that meant it was Manchester City who topped last season's Premier League and not the Blues.
"It was one of those games where we lost and deserved to lose," he said ahead of Saturday's encounter. "I know why we lost so there was no lesson to be learnt We lost there last season because they were better than us in every aspect of the game. This season we have more personality to impose our game."
And impose their game they (eventually) did at Selhurst Park, calmly negotiating the second 45 minutes following a first half which had ended tempestuously with two red cards.
Back in March, Mourinho laid into some of his big-name players for lacking the fight to win the title, writing on a journalist's notepad that what his team lacked that afternoon was "balls."
Today, when prompted to write on the very same scribe's pad what had been key to his team's victory over the same opponents, the Portuguese penned "big balls".
What Jose wrote in my notepad about his teams attitude today v crystal palace pic.twitter.com/eMJbQMJE9j
— Paul Lagan (@CFCJourno) October 18, 2014
"The way we imposed our game [pleased me most]," he said. "I said if we come here and don’t impose our game we have no chance. The only chance is to impose our game and from minute one to minute 94 we imposed our game: we had the ball, we were always in control and very far from our box."
Diego Costa's absence hogged the pre-match headlines; the league's top scorer left out for the first time in 2014/15 having aggravated his troublesome hamstring on international duty.
Loic Remy replaced the Brazil-born marksman, while Willian stepped in for an unwell Andre Schurrle in the Blues' only other change from their 2-0 victory over Arsenal. Palace's single alteration from the 2-0 defeat at Hull saw Brede Hangeland picked in place of Scott Dann at the heart of the Eagles' defence.
Nemanja Matic fired in the first effort of an incident-packed opening period, but Palace, who had not won back-to-back league games against Chelsea since 1982, soon had the Blues' back four in a panic.
Fraizer Campbell twisted and turned away from Gary Cahill before seeing a low drive blocked by Thibaut Courtois, who had to throw himself in front of the ball again after Azpilicueta had conceded a corner.
But Oscar was having none of it and relieved the early tension with one waft of his right foot; his 20-yard free-kick arching beyond the despairing dive of Julian Speroni.
Undeterred, the home side continued to cause problems down the left flank. Another searching long pass for Campbell caught out Cahill - the forward's lob landing on the roof of the net - before Yannick Bolasie's cross-cum-shot from the same channel almost looped over the fingertips of keeper Courtois.
Visiting skipper John Terry saw a header cleared off the line by James McArthur, while Jason Puncheon set his sights from long range and forced Courtois to parry his shot to safety. But the half ended with handbags after referee Craig Pawson brandished his red card on two occasions.
Azpilicueta walked for a studs-up challenge on Mile Jedinak, but Palace's numerical advantage was shortlived as Damien Delaney picked up a yellow card for a shirt pull having already talked himself into the book.
"It was a silly thing to do," lamented manager Neil Warnock, "to give the referee a decision like that. I think half the [Chelsea] team surrounded the ref, I thought they influenced him at times. But I don't think that should take anything away from our lads, I thought we played some great stuff in the first 40 minutes."
Willian was often the outlet for Chelsea in the first 45 minutes, making more passes than Fabregas with half of them in the attacking third of the pitch. However, his number was up during the interval; Mourinho sacrificing him in order for Filipe Luis to fill in at left-back following Azpilicueta's dismissal.
It took less than six minutes for the move to pay dividends in a half that Chelsea dominated. Patiently working the ball from back to front, the Blues' flair players exploded into life on the edge of the penalty area with a combination of short, sharp passes and final flick to Fabregas who finished with aplomb.
The west Londoners exuded confidence thereafter, making better use of the additional space in a second half that began with 10 vs 10. From minutes 45-60, Chelsea completed 184/193 passes to Palace's 23/32.
"Ten against 10 is easier than 11 against 11. People think it is the same but it's not. My players’ interpretation of 10 against 10 was magnificent," said Mourinho. "The way Matic, Fabregas and Oscar moved to get the good things from the 10 against 10 was fantastic. The only thing we didn’t do well was not to score the third goal."
Eden Hazard, Oscar and Remy tried, but failed, to add gloss to the scoreline, and youth team star Dominic Solanke was poised for a run-out when Palace unexpectedly set up a grandstand finale. Substitute Wilfried Zaha beat Luis with ease before squaring the ball for Campbell to finally get his goal.
Didier Drogba was summoned from the bench instead, and earned rave reviews from his manager as Chelsea made sure they came away from south London with all three points this time.
"I have to praise Didier because he was injured for a long time and he was not even training with the team, not even Friday. I told him that maybe I need him, maybe not. And I needed him. At 2-0 I was going to put Solanke on but when they scored I changed to Didier and he was the best player in the last four minutes: long balls, hold the ball, keep possession. His experience and understanding of the situation was fantastic."
By the end, both Fabregas and Matic racked up more than 100 passes to highlight Chelsea's second half control. Fabregas' goal capped yet another impressive display, with the Spaniard making the most passes and ball recoveries as well as setting up the most chances.
While Oscar, whose two league goals this season have both come inside the opening 7 minutes of games, was the best tackler of the game as well as firing in the most shots for the Blues.
"He did fantastic against Arsenal and again today," mused Mourinho. "He’s not a number 10 that plays with the ball at his feet. He’s a number 10 that looks back and moves to the side. He analyses the game and sees where the team needs him to move to get the ball and where to move to create balances.
"Oscar has had a mental and tactical evolution that has allowed him to be a fantastic player. Can he physically improve? Of course. But people forget he’s still so young."
- Chelsea are now unbeaten in 11 Premier League matches, winning 9 and drawing 2.
- Chelsea have lost just 1 of their last 16 Premier League London derbies (W11 D4 L1).
- This was only the second Premier League game to see 2 red cards this season (after West Ham vs Tottenham).
- Cesc Fabregas has been involved in 8 goals (1 goal, 7 assists) in 8 Premier League games for Chelsea.
- This was only the 12th time in Premier League history that both teams were reduced to 10 men before half-time.
- Loic Remy only hit 1 shot in 91 minutes of play.
- Chelsea had 72% possession in this game, their highest figure this season and the fifth highest recorded in the division in 2014/15.