Chelsea hung onto a lead, the post, and their foothold on the top-four with desperation and more than a little luck as they clawed to a chaotic victory at Selhurst Park. Twice Frank Lampard’s side saw their two-goal lead halved, once by a blur of magnificence from Wilfried Zaha and the other self-inflicted by absent defending. Twice they should have been punished in a frantic period of stoppage-time, where Scott Dann’s header was denied by the post and Christian Benteke cut through on goal only to be stopped in his tracks by a brilliant tackle from Kurt Zouma.
Ultimately, though, as Lampard’s revolution continues to sputter, it is another vital three points, a gasp of air between themselves and the shadow of Manchester United that looms heavily on their coattails, and another panic-stricken but, crucially, successful step towards the finish line.
For all their success this season, there’s no avoiding that this is a Chelsea side with weaknesses and naiveties, at times clumsily riding towards the Champions League. They profited early and clinically from a cruel twist of fate as Gary Cahill crumpled in agony after appearing to suffer a serious hamstring injury. Unchallenged and with a hole left in defence ahead, Willian ran onto Reece James’ pass, paused calmly to analyse the picture in front of him and found an open Olivier Giroud, who swept home nonchalantly from six yards. It might have felt a little unsporting, but at this stage of the season, sympathy and generosity come in scarce supply.
For a second, Palace’s players stood motionless, their pockets robbed by misfortune as Cahill continued to writhe in pain. As reality sunk in and the game became stretched, Chelsea sought to pick off their wounded opponents. Kurt Zouma squandered a free header from a corner, Mason Mount’s irresistible shimmy forcing Luka Milivojevic into a desperate lunge on the edge of the box.
The coarse, exasperated cries of Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington echoed around Selhurst Park, urgently attempting to close the alleyways forming all over the pitch, but it had all the effect of screaming into the dark. Immediately after the restart, Palace switched off and allowed the slippery Willian to waltz along the 18-yard-line and play through Pulisic, whose blistering shot personified a player brimming with confidence.
For Willian, whose future is still uncertain, it was a 20th goal or assist this season. The creative heartbeat of this Chelsea side, his presence only feels more indispensable with each passing game.
But just as the pattern of the game took an inevitable avalanche towards Palace’s goal, Zaha burst into life. Throughout the first half, he taunted James with a repertoire of flicks and feints, but found little end product. This time, he cut inside, picked up the ball 30 yards from goal and lashed all his frustrations into a fierce shot that burnt the fingertips of Kepa Arrizabalaga. It was a moment of sheer individual brilliance from the winger, the quality that always breathes life into this Palace side. Yet, another interrogation of Chelsea’s shaky goalkeeper-come-burden will follow, with Lampard wincing towards his bench as the goalkeeper fumbled a cross minutes later.
Lampard was spared the indefinite conundrum of plugging the world’s most complete tackler into a compartmentalised role, with N’Golo Kante ruled out by injury, but Chelsea’s midfield occasionally looked a little lightweight as Palace chased the game. Zaha switched flanks and regularly found space as Jordan Ayew pestered in circles around the blunt but imposing Christian Benteke. Often accused of slack set-piece defending, another disorganised corner and crumpling of bodies saw the ball fall to Ayew, but he dithered with the ball under his feet and was closed down.
Lampard responded by introducing Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham as Chelsea became overly coiled, too willing to invite pressure. Quickly, the head coach has developed a hand for game-changing substitutions, and just minutes later the academy pair combined on the counter-attack. Loftus-Cheek broke forwards and fed the ball to Abraham on the right-hand-side of the box, shedding the burden of a 13-game Premier League goal-drought, the striker squared a shot across Vicente Guiata and in off the far-post.
Yet, as so often this season, Chelsea seemed to be the orchestrators of their own unravelling. Virtually from kick-off, Patrick van Aanholt was allowed to career in behind by James and cut the ball back to Christian Benteke, who graciously received just his second goal all season.
With the lead back to one, a nerve-riddled 15 minutes remained. Jorginho was relieved of his ostracisation for a brief cameo. Abraham spurned a gilt-edged chance to stifle the mayhem that followed and dithered on the touchline with seconds to play, gifting Palace a final chance for an equaliser they probably deserved. Dann’s header hit the inside of the post. Benteke’s appeals were waved away.
Somehow, Chelsea had held on. Another heart-pounding 90 minutes passed with barely an even breath. But, now, only four games remain.