Chelsea reclaimed fourth place in the Premier League with a 4-1 victory at Selhurst Park which met little serious resistance from start to finish. More importantly, perhaps, in the longer term, they did so with Kai Havertz playing a nice sharp hand as a center forward.
On a frigid south London afternoon, Chelsea’s £ 70million summer signing was a smart move, cute touches and even – of all things – a goal well taken.
“Kai will never be our emotional leader and we don’t expect him to be,” Thomas Tuchel said afterwards. “But we have to see his quality, he has to occupy high positions, he has to show that he can do better. There is still room to improve in the finish, he can be more ruthless.
While Tuchel has refused to be pulled down on his superlatives, it’s worth remembering that these things get more manageable when the opposition barely shows up until the game is over. And it was a surprisingly one-sided game in its opening hour, as Jorginho led the midfielder and the Blue Shirts swarmed their hosts.
Tuchel rested Reece James here, with Callum Hudson-Odoi in the right-back. He also withstood some diffuse pressure to reinstall a “suitable” central striker and persisted with Havertz in the faux-ish 9 role. It’s not hard to see why. Tuchel wants above all to control the ball and has a desire for Pep for the technicians, the ball players, the midfielders. In addition, of course, the club really need to get something from Havertz, whose cap is extremely high, its price even more.
Roy Hodgson remained with the team that drew with Everton on Monday, with Wilfried Zaha close to Christian Benteke in attack.
Not that it made a big difference as Palace started out as a surprise team to end up in a live soccer match.
Chelsea dominated from the kick-off, pouring relentlessly down the right flank. After eight minutes, they were ahead. A succession of attacks in blue shirts saw the ball arrive at the feet of Havertz at 10 meters. He slid it carefully into a corner.
Palace looked stunned, the threshold of a breathless team. And two minutes later it was 2-0. Havertz gave the last pass but it was a wonderful team move, the light blue shirts zipping the ball to the left, Havertz stopping just long enough to slip his pass into Christian Pulisic’s run. The finish tore in the roof of the net.
Chelsea continued to dominate, the front three hiding in the half-spaces, creating overloads with the wingers on both flanks. At 23 minutes it should have been 3-0 as Jorginho played a nice forward pass and Havertz produced a combination to the Gazza, a kick over Patrick van Aanholt’s head with his left foot followed by a low shot. with his right, only to see Vicente Guaita make a nice save.
The visitors’ third goal came within half an hour, helped by the free kick from Mason Mount. Kurt Zouma jumped high, held the pose, then sent a beautiful head to the top corner.
Palace staged a serious first attack at 3-0, but soon after Mount made another good save, Van Aanholt was heading towards the line, and the steam attack pattern against defense was reestablished.
The halftime tally showed 11 zero shots and 79% possession for the visitors. It seemed generous. Really, only 11?
The Palace players had left the pitch visibly frustrated at half-time, subjected not only to the usual raucous coaxing from Ray Lewington, but to the cries of dismay from teammates in the stands.
There was a slide towards some sort of parity after the break. Ben Chilwell crossed over to the left but shot wide when he could have landed on a single finish.
And with an hour passed, Palace finally started playing. Benteke scored with his first attempt at a goal, finishing cleanly after Jeffrey Schlupp skated around N’Golo Kanté to cross.
It was Benteke’s second goal at Selhurst Park since April 2018, a strangely sterile record for such a richly awarded international center-forward.
James McCarthy’s introduction had bolstered a fragile midfielder, but Chelsea continued to make chances with Havertz producing fine films and Mount Waspish coming in from the left.
Pulisic added Chelsea’s fourth in the 77th minute, making just the right point to score at home a handsome cross from second-half substitute James, and stopping any further thought of Palace resistance.