Chelsea reclaimed fourth spot in the Premier League with a 4-1 victory at Selhurst Park that met little serious resistance from start to finish. More importantly, perhaps, in the longer term, they did so with Kai Havertz playing a fine, incisive hand as the central attacker.
On a freezing afternoon in South London Chelsea’s £70m summer signing was all clever moment, cute touches and even – of all things – a well-taken goal. Although, these things become more manageable when the opposition barely turns up until the game has gone.
This was a startlingly one-sided game in that opening hour, as Jorginho ran the midfield and the blue shirts swarmed all over their hosts. It isn’t hard to see why Palace have such a poor record against the stronger teams. They were horribly diffident.
Thomas Tuchel rested Reece James here, with Callum Hudson-Odoi in at right wing-back. He also resisted some diffuse pressure to reinstall a “proper” central striker and persisted with Havertz in the false-ish nine role. It is not hard to see why. Tuchel wants above all to control the ball and has a Pep-like yearning for technicians, ball-players, midfielders. Plus, of course, the club really do need to get something out of Havertz, whose ceiling is extremely high, his price tag even more so.
Roy Hodgson stuck with the team that drew with Everton on Monday, with Wilfried Zaha offering his thrust and guile close to Christian Benteke in attack.
Not that it made much difference as Palace began like a team startled to find itself taking place in an actual live football match.
Chelsea dominated the early stages, pouring relentlessly down the right flank. On eight minutes, Christian Pulisic drew a close-range save from Vicente Guaita. Thirty seconds later Chelsea were ahead, the ball never leaving that right channel, and finally arriving at the feet of Havertz, who slid it neatly into the corner.
Palace looked stunned. And two minutes later it was 2-0. Havertz gave the final pass, but this was a wonderful team move, the light blue shirts zipping the ball around on the left, Havertz pausing just long enough to slide his pass into Pulisic’s run. The finish ripped into the roof of the net.
And still Chelsea continued to dominate, making the ball their own, the front three lurking in half spaces, creating overloads on both flanks. With 23 minutes gone it should have been 3-0 as Jorginho played a fine lofted forward pass and Havertz produced a Gazza-style combination, a flick over the head of Patrick van Aanholt with his left foot, then a low shot with his right, only to see Guaita make a fine save.
The third goal duly arrived on the half hour assisted by Mount’s free-kick into the Palace box. Kurt Zouma leapt high, held the pose above the Palace defence, then sent a fine header into the top corner.
Palace mustered a first serious attack at 3-0 down, but before long Mount was drawing another fine save, Van Aanholt was heading off the line, and the pattern of steamrollering attack versus defence was re-established. The half-time tally read 11 shots to zero, and 79% possession to the visitors. It seemed generous to Palace. Really, only 11?
The Palace players had left the pitch visibly frustrated at half-time, having been subjected not just to Ray Lewington’s usual hoarse cajolings, but shouts of dismay from teammates in the stand.
There was a shift towards some kind of parity after the break. Ben Chilwell shimmed through on the left, but shot wide when he might have laid on a simple finish. Tuchel stamped his feet and waved his arms, venting his perfectionist’s frustration at poor decision-making while simultaneously warding off the fierce April chill.
And with an hour gone Palace finally began to play. Christian Benteke scored with their first attempt at goal, finishing neatly after Jeffrey Schlupp had skated around N’Golo Kanté to cross.
It was Benteke’s second goal at Selhurst Park since April 2018, a bizarrely barren record for such a lavishly-rewarded international centre-forward. The introduction of James McCarthy had stiffened a brittle Palace midfield. But Chelsea still kept on making chances, with Havertz producing some lovely flicks and Mount waspish coming in off the left.
Pulisic added Chelsea’s fourth on 77 minutes, making just the right run to slot home a fine cross from James, and stilling any further thought of Palace resistance.