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Crystal Palace 0-3 Chelsea: Blues getting into their groove again

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 04/01/2016

Taken down: Chelsea ace Oscar is fouled by Palace’s Mile Jedinak
Taken down: Chelsea ace Oscar is fouled by Palace’s Mile Jedinak

How better to start 2016 than this? Chelsea opened their year with a performance that eclipsed almost anything they produced in 2015, beating a diminished Crystal Palace with the style and verve they had lost utterly in the past few months.

This was the first win of the second Guus Hiddink era, the first step back towards normality for these players after the trauma of their autumn. The three points are desperately important, moving them ahead of Bournemouth and Norwich City in the Premier League table and further away from the relegation zone.

But what mattered more were the first signs of expansive, attacking play and natural fluency that Chelsea have shown all season.

Jose Mourinho wanted to build a dynasty at Stamford Bridge, but the main legacy he left when he was sacked last month was a good group of players whose confidence had been destroyed.

One of Hiddink's main tasks on his return to Chelsea is to conjure up that confidence and enthusiasm again, to reinvigorate the atmosphere, to remind these talented players how good they are.

It seems he is doing all of that as this was the best Chelsea have played since they thumped Swansea City away from home 50 weeks ago.

This was not an easy game to play, given the wet pitch, loud crowd and tireless opponents. The players spent the opening stages coming to terms with the conditions. Cesar Azpilicueta slipped and was kicked in the face by Fraizer Campbell.

Eden Hazard limped off with a groin strain after 15 minutes. While he received treatment, the rest of Chelsea's forwards revelled in the chance to play football like they used to.

Cesc Fabregas has been the most obvious under-performer, but here, with forwards willing to make runs in front of him, he was a new player. He made the move for the first goal in the 29th minute, playing a clever forward pass to Diego Costa.

Damien Delaney slid and failed to intercept the ball and Costa drove towards the near post. He cut the ball back to Oscar, darting into the box, who tapped the ball in.

Once in front, Chelsea never looked as if they would not win. They should have scored again just before the break, when Oscar's diagonal ball picked out Azpilicueta's clever run in behind, only for Wayne Hennessey to save.

Too many times this season Chelsea have taken an early lead before panicking, sitting back, and losing badly. This time they stayed on the front foot, dominated the second-half and made sure of the win with two emphatic goals.

The second came on the hour. Willian started a passing move which went through Costa and Oscar before returning to him and his powerful, 20-yard shot flew in.

Willian made the third six minutes later, bursting from midfield into the inside-right channel. His low cross was palmed away by Hennessey but Costa, instincts re-sharpened, finished at the far post.

That was the end of the contest and the final minutes were dominated by Chelsea's fans revelling in the absurdity of their situation, singing first that they were going to stay up, then that they were going to win the league. When they sang Mourinho's name it was not with much enthusiasm.

For Palace, the main excitement came with 10 minutes left, when Lee Chung-yong was replaced by Jonny Williams, back from loan at Nottingham Forest and making his first Palace appearance since September 2014.

Palace were without Yohan Cabaye, Yannick Bolasie and Connor Wickham - their brains, their most dangerous attacking player and their only real centre-forward. They were diminished, with Wilfried Zaha and Campbell stationed up front.

Zaha and Campbell had half-chances, but struggled to cause Chelsea real problems. Zaha shot wide from 20 yards after seven minutes and Campbell later failed to connect with a cross.

This was a very different afternoon from the one four months ago when Palace went to Stamford Bridge and won 2-1. Cabaye, Bolasie and Wickham all starred that day but without them Palace look ordinary.

Chelsea were an even more changed team from that day. Yesterday, under Hiddink, they controlled the midfield, attacked with confidence, scored goals and defended as a team. They are still eight points behind Palace, but their nightmare is over.

Belfast Telegraph

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