Chelsea travelled to the Eagles as the New Year passed us by. They were looking to avenge the 2-1 reversal at Stamford Bridge in the opening stages of the season and had been considerably better over the recent weeks with a commendable draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford just the previous week.
Crystal Palace were meanwhile defying odds to challenge for a Champions League spot, only 3 points adrift as the match was underway. They have had problems with injuries as Sako and Bolasie both sat out the match while their best player, Cabaye, had been suspended for the derby clash.
Chelsea lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Diego Costa up top. Behind him were Hazard, Oscar and Willian while Mikel and Fabregas were the deeper midfielders. The defence comprised of Azpilicueta, Terry, Zouma and Ivanovic as Courtois was the preferred number one.
Chelsea were trying to implement a possession game with all the midfielders and Costa extremely useful with the ball and passing with immense quality. The most importance was given to getting behind the midfielders McArthur and Jedinak. This was repeatedly done with ease all over the match as Fabregas looked his incisive best while Costa was holding up everything that was thrown at him. Hazard and Willian moved all along the pitch to try and create overloads and often perplexed defenders as they moved the ball with great precision and speed. Mikel was the king in the midfield battle and a real rock in terms of providing solidity. He owned the middle of the park with immaculate challenges and looked a real option to Matic for Chelsea.
Crystal Palace looked to hit Chelsea on the break with high balls to the lightning quick Campbell with long punts. In case an opportunity showed to play out from the back, it ended up as possession on the wings with Puncheon and Zaha marauding the flanks along with Lee. All the possession on the sides was showing prominence as the match was still in its infancy but as it wore on, the Chelsea defence acclimatised to this aerial route and Zouma especially had his heels dug into the attacking trio of Zaha, Campbell and Puncheon as they were hunted by the man mountain and tackled with unbelievable precision.
Chelsea meanwhile tried to play centrally and looked to get in behind the Palace midfielders as mentioned before. This was aided by the fact that Palace were having a really high press and were infact reckless into the backs of Oscar and co. This created spaces just outside the box where Pedro, Willian or Oscar were waiting to take advantage. Either they set themselves for a shot or they looked to play in Costa. Both these strategies yielded goals for the Blues. Even as Chelsea were only one goal up, it was clear that it would be enough to win the match barring any freak goals or misread corners. But Chelsea weren’t done yet and looked to heap more misery and they did that with two brilliant goals from Willian and Costa where the tactical setup from Hiddink really shined.
The fact that all the three goals resulted from the tactical setup was even more impressive as Chelsea had struggled all season to score barring any individual mistakes or Willian’s free kicks but in this match Hiddink took Palace’s most impressive characteristic and turned it against them as the passing often lured in Jedinak and McArthur into the backs of Oscar or Costa who immediately looked for Fabregas or Mikel who in turn looked to set Willian or Pedro free or find Oscar in Costa’s position.
This imbalance was repeated over and over again and the fact that Delaney and Souare were both left stranded across the three goals goes to show how immaculately Chelsea displayed this skill all across the park.
Another notable point from the match was Oscar’s play. He has always been a different kind of Number 10, hardworking and disciplined instead of being uber-creative like his predecessor Mata. He used this ability to the best under Mourinho and was the main reason why Mourinho preferred him but ever since he left, Oscar has started to show his brilliant ball playing capabilities. Especially against Sunderland and then yesterday, it was clear that Oscar will now attack spaces and fill the void Costa left when he came deep. This meant that Fabregas effectively played a one-two with the striker but with two separate players in reality. In all the three goals, we can see the brilliant play from not only Fabregas who had turned over a new leaf but also from Oscar who was always central, sticking to his position and advancing as Costa left a void by pulling away defenders. This crucial element in Oscar’s play should be utilised by Hiddink as it would definitely yield a bucket-load of goals over the season.