Chelsea made it 11 Premier League wins on the bounce with a steady 1-0 win against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, guaranteeing the Blues the Christmas No.1 spot.
Costa’s header just before half-time proved to be the decisive winner, with the Blues asserting a mighty nine-point lead at the top of the table, albeit having played a game more. Despite this, in all four title-winning campaigns — in 2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10 and 2014-15 — Chelsea have led the way at Christmas, so omens are good for Conte’s first season in charge.
The win could have been more convincing but for a combination of Wayne Hennessey and the woodwork, but the defensive solidity was there with the third successive clean sheets and nine in Chelsea’s past 11 games.
No wonder the sheer delight was evident on Conte’s face at full-time, with the Italian becoming first Premier League manager to win 14 of his opening 17 games in the competition After a slow personal start, and a tumultuous 12 months for Chelsea, looks to be ending in fine fashion.
Admist the dense fog, Crystal Palace were aiming to end a run of nine Premier League London derbies without victory, but they would have to do it against a formidable Chelsea side in fine form.
Good link-up play between Willian, Costa and Hazard saw the latter fouled by Ward, with the defender receiving Moss’ first booking. The ensuing free-kick by Luiz, six yards outside the penalty area, was deflected wide as Luiz tried to go under the wall.
At the other end, Luiz caught napping in the box as Puncheon nearly delivered a sucker-punch to Chelsea’s run. Cabaye drove forward and found Kelly on the right, who was afforded far too much space by Alonso to control and square to a free Puncheon in the penalty area, but the shot was dragged fortuitously wide. It was a warning.
A dangerous period of Crystal Palace pressure was brewing, as first Costa felt it necessary to cynically foul one of their players to prevent a counter-attack, whilst Kante made a hash of a clearance that eventually saw the ball go into the box and McArthur rising between Luiz and Cahill to get a clean header away, albeit off-target.
Just before half-time was where Chelsea made their mark though, with a more precise header that was on target and did ripple the net.
Alonso drove forward into Crystal Palace’s half and found Hazard, who passed to Azpilicueta in a fairly innocuous ball. The right-back-turned-centre-back, not known for his passing ability, floated a delicious ball up high in the air and Costa raced into the box to get between his men and delicately glide it into the back of the net.
It means Costa is out-and-out the league’s top scorer again with his 13th goal of the season, more than he managed in the entire 2015-16 season, and it brings up his 50th Chelsea goal in all competitions for Chelsea, 17 more than any other player for the club since his debut.
The hosts try to level things straight after the re-start as Luiz and Cahill again were found to be mis-communicating and dallying over the ball. Cabaye seized initiative to drive a long-range shot at Courtois’ goal, but the Belgian saved firmly.
What Cabaye could do, Kante as his opposite midfield partner could do better, with the Frenchman next to try a long-range shot at Hennessey, but the Welshman was again equal to it if his hands were a little stung.
The wing-backs were not getting much opportunity to create opportunities, but with an hour played we did see the link-up between the two. Fabregas found Moses who swung in a fantastic ball into the box, and when it came to Alonso on the other side the Spaniard showed great technique to keep his shot low, but it hit the side-netting.
Benteke turned Cahill far too easily to shoot at Courtois’ goal, but the Chelsea chances were more potent.
Costa drove forward and found Hazard, who pulled back to Moses inside the penalty area. Crowded out, he found Kante to side-foot and Hennessey did superbly to get down low and stick out a very strong hand. The loose ball was cleared up before Costa could pounce.
Moses then drove forward and could have set a first-time ball off to Hazard but instead waited for Alonso, who again showed great technique to unleash a solid drive at Hennessey’s goal, with the Welshman at full stretch to keep Palace in the game.
Hazard’s quick feet brought another Crystal Palace yellow card and this time set-piece duties were entrusted to Alonso, who smacked the underside of the crossbar with a curling free-kick that had Hennessey well beaten. Cahill tried to poach the rebound but the hosts stood firm.
Chelsea had ample opportunity to put the game to bed but nerves were at an all-time high when the hosts secured a free-kick in injury time. Andros Townsend found Row Z.
Next up on Boxing Day will be Bournemouth as Chelsea look to try to close in on the all-time winning streak record of 14 matches set by Arsenal in 2002, but they will have to do it without both Costa and Kante as both receive a one-game ban for accumulating five yellow cards so far this season.
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Man of the Match
CESAR AZPILICUETA: In a match where no one person delivered a stand-out knock-out performance, can we praise the graft of Azpilicueta? The Spaniard has been a relative bargain since joining Chelsea and had adapted his game to whichever position required, starting off as a right-back, then Ashley Cole’s successor at left-back, and now keeping Ivanovic out of the side as one of the three centre-backs. Did his defensive duties superbly today and, to boot, delivered a Fabregas-esque assist for Costa’s winner, hanging the ball up beautifully for his compatriot to send their side nine points clear at the top of the table. 7/10
Conte was urging his side not to get complacent: “The run is fantastic. Congratulations to my players, not me. It is [due to] commitment, the way we prepare for the game and the way they fight. We have reached a good balance between offence and defence. We can improve though. I am pleased with this level we have reached, but it is important to understand we are only at the 17th game in the season. We must not look at the table. We must not look at our rivals and continue working hard ourselves.”
Pardew praised Chelsea’s defensive solidity: “They did not give us anything and that was as good a defensive display that we have seen. Once we conceded, it was very difficult. They ask questions and do not make errors.”
Post written by Martin Li. Martin has had five years’ blogging experience, writing for the likes of Bleacher Report and SWOL. He runs his own Chelsea blog — The Chelsea Chronicle — which has match reaction and analysis from every Chelsea match. You can follow him on Twitter.
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