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Friday, June 21, 2024

Have Chelsea turned a corner, or is it another false start?

LONDON — Chelsea made the short trip to Selhurst Park tasked with finding the consistency that has been missing all season, and injury-time goals from Conor Gallagher and Enzo Fernández answered manager Mauricio Pochettino’s call, eventually. The 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Monday repaid a performance where Chelsea dominated possession but struggled to turn that into clear-cut chances until those two late hammer blows.

It was the ex-Palace loanee Gallagher who was the thorn in the Eagles’ side. After Jefferson Lerma‘s first-half wondergoal, Gallagher’s goal just 90 seconds into the second half drew things level, and he followed that up with his 91st-minute winner, leaving Fernandez’s well-taken third to round things off. Those two late knockout punches would have hurt the vocal home fans as much as they delighted the travelling away support.

With Chelsea stuck mid-table and still looking to find a winning formula from their £1 billion outlay under owner Todd Boehly, and with Crystal Palace teetering near the relegation zone and manager Roy Hodgson under pressure, this was always going to be a nervy, tense match. Fans demanded statement performances, and both teams played with an intensity and urgency that underlined its importance. But it was Chelsea and Gallagher who came out on top as Pochettino’s second-half substitutions helped produce an end product after a first half where they dominated possession but had no cutting edge.

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Chelsea’s season to date has flitted between false starts and frustrating bumps in the road. They’ve at times threatened to go on a run of form, only to trip up. Their past three matches neatly summed up their erratic form: after shipping eight goals in their defeats to Liverpool and Wolves in the Premier League, they then put together a brilliant 3-1 victory away at Aston Villa in the FA Cup last Wednesday.

Gallagher summed the state of the team well after Monday’s game: “There have been some games where we’ve been brilliant, and some games where we’ve been terrible, so it’s been about getting that consistency.” The win was a bit of both in each half, although the win gives Chelsea a chance to finally turn a corner if they can keep it up.

The Blues’ erratic form highlights a lack of direction from ownership and the jumbled, young squad that Pochettino is juggling: somewhere in the middle of all their 28 signings since Boehly took ownership of the club is a young team capable of working its way up the table. Now, with back-to-back wins, the question is whether this latest string of form will too fizzle out.

“That’s the consistency, which we need to change,” Pochettino said after beating Palace. “We need to start the game a different way, we need to try to be consistent to play and perform always in the way how we performed against Aston Villa. It’s not easy, but that’s the challenge.”

The pressure was hardly lighter on the hosts. Palace had won their past two in the league at home, but those were their only victories from their past 14 matches. They came into this also without star players Eberechi Eze, Michael Olise and Marc Guehi, who had all fallen to injury in the past fortnight. That’s their three most influential players absent, alongside long-term absentee Cheikhou Kouyaté.

Hodgson said earlier this week he is enduring the “toughest period of [his] career” — quite a statement given he’s been managing since 1976. And the pre-match noise from those in the boardroom, and on the pitch was the need for the fans to stick by them despite their recent displeasure at the results, team selection and style of play. The fans made their thoughts clear with a banner in the Holmesdale Road end reading: “Weak club culture and direction.”

Despite their misgivings, from the outset, the Palace fans were vocal, the smoke from red flares engulfing Dean Henderson‘s goal in the first half. It helped create the claustrophobic feeling of this match where resolves were being tested alongside the patience of those in the stands.

Chelsea started from the outset in trying to pick up where they left off from the Villa match, making just one injury-enforced change with Thiago Silva starting in place of injured Benoit Badiashile. But the first half saw Chelsea try the same thing repeatedly to no avail: they controlled the ball in the middle of the pitch, switched it wide, relied on the pace and invention of fullbacks Malo Gusto and Ben Chilwell to get the ball into the box and watched Palace clear the ball.

At the other end, Palace were far more inventive with their front three including new signing Matheus França profiting from the industry of midfielders Adam Wharton — in his first Premier League start since his big-money January move — Will Hughes and Jefferson Lerma in keeping Chelsea backpedaling. After Mateta had a great chance saved by Dorde Petrovic, their high press eventually paid off, with Lerma blasting home a brilliant 30-yard strike after Noni Madueke and Moisés Caicedo were caught in possession.

Chelsea trudged into the break 1-0 down with an expected goals, or xG, of just 0.06 — their lowest in a first half since Liverpool humiliated them in January, per ESPN Stats & Information. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s 420 completed passes without a shot on goal in the first half was the most in the Premier League since 2003.

But after halftime, it was Chelsea who emerged brighter from the slumber. With Christopher Nkunku a half-time substitute for the frustrated Madueke, the Blues shifted formation to playing with two up front, with Gallagher and Cole Palmer — ineffectual as a false No. 9 in the first half — just behind. It clicked immediately with Gusto’s cross finding Gallagher in the middle of the box and he finished well to draw the game level.

From there Chelsea kept their stranglehold on the match as Raheem Sterling‘s introduction (despite a wasted finish off a brilliant through ball) helped bring further intensity leading to Gallagher breaking Palace’s resolve with a late winner. Fernandez’s injury-time goal as he toyed with Daniel Muñoz only served to rub salt into the wounds.

“The gaffer gave us more structure in their half of the pitch to try and create more chances,” Gallagher said. “It was really good from the manager and helped us play better in the second half.”

So, it’s the second-half Chelsea that the away fans will take away with them. Despite all the possession in the first 45 minutes, it was the second-half group that delivered. Pochettino’s tactical switch worked, the inventiveness of Enzo Fernandez was given space to shine and Palmer looked far happier playing slightly deeper off the front two. Gusto and Chilwell ran themselves into the ground while Caicedo grew into the game playing slightly deeper.

But once again, Gallagher — the man who was constantly linked with moves away from the club — is the one who stood up when it counted and converted the growing sense of inevitability about this match into reality. It was a potent cocktail and something Pochettino’s group can take forward to their next task, a trip to Manchester City on Saturday.

“I think he’s a player with a great commitment to the team, always trying to compensate every single situation,” Pochettino said of Gallagher. “It’s priceless to have a player like him. I’m so happy for him as it’s a victory we needed.”

The start of the second half was delayed as referee Michael Oliver was having technical issues with his mic and, to fill the void as the players kicked the ball around to keep warm, those in charge of the stadium playlist opted for Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Supporters from both sides sang it loud into the chilly south London sky. But out of the two sets of fans, it’ll be Chelsea’s supporters who are starting to believe that eventually, everything might just be all right.

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