Chelsea paid emotional tribute to Gianluca Vialli before and during their first game at Stamford Bridge since the sad passing of their legendary former player and manager aged just 58 following a long battle with pancreatic cancer earlier this month, while new signing Mykhaylo Mudryk watched on from a directors’ box and was presented to fans at half-time after completing his stunning £89million transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk.
In a feisty London derby encounter in SW6, Spanish goalkeepers Kepa Arrizabalaga and Vicente Guaita were both kept very busy with a string of impressive saves that kept the deadlock intact until four minutes past the hour mark, when Havertz rose to meet Hakim Ziyech’s pinpoint cross following an effective short corner to punish some sleepy Palace defending and plant what proved to be a winning header into the back of the net.
That was just about what Chelsea - whose fans sang “we are staying up” in tongue-in-cheek fashion after taking the lead - deserved from an improved display, albeit one that was still not convincing by any means and in which they rode their luck on a number of occasions.
But victory was essential at all costs for Potter, who was battling to save his job after a dire run of three straight defeats and just one win in nine - Chelsea’s worst top-flight run since 1996 that saw them drop down to 10th and 10 points adrift of the top four, in addition to meek exits from both domestic cup competitions at the hands of Manchester City.
Havertz should have put the game to bed with a second effort 10 minutes from time, but he could only steer another header from Mason Mount’s cross wide of the back post.
Chelsea were instead left hanging on as Palace pushed hard for a late equaliser, with Kepa at full stretch to keep out Cheick Doucoure’s sweetly-struck volley from outside the box and Thiago Silva defending heroically to prove once again that age is just a number.
Benoit Badiashile also stood up to the challenge well on his debut following that £35m move from Monaco, with Potter making five changes from Thursday’s derby defeat at Fulham as Conor Gallagher, Jorginho, Carney Chukwuemeka and Ziyech also came in, with Cesar Azpilicueta, Kalidou Koulibaly and Mateo Kovacic all dropped to the bench.
Denis Zakaria had been added to Chelsea’s lengthy injury list at Craven Cottage and Joao Felix was suspended after his debut red card, though there was at least some positive selection news for Potter with Ruben Loftus-Cheek back in the squad after resuming first-team training at Cobham this week.
There were plenty of other chances in a lively contest, with substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also denied by Guaita, who also saved from Havertz after Wilfried Zaha had stung the palms of Kepa from a tight angle. Mudryk was spotted on his phone during a laboured start to the second half.
The score was deadlocked at the break, with Guaita having tipped Ziyech’s effort over the top and Kepa reacted smartly to somehow claw away Jeff Schlupp’s front-post header.
The impressive teenager Lewis Hall also forced a good stop from Guaita that wasn’t picked up by the officials, while Palace had to cope with losing key defender Joachim Andersen to injury midway through the first half.
Havertz looked offside as he headed an initial chance well over from close range, with former Palace loanee Gallagher impressing in midfield and drawing several fouls and yellow cards, with Chukwuemeka also catching the eye on his first Premier League start for Chelsea.
The offside flag was raised as Silva smashed a low half-volley that was brilliantly tipped wide by Guaita after Kepa had already made two strong stops to keep Michael Olise and the returning Tyrick Mitchell at bay.
A much-needed win for Chelsea ahead of their trip to Liverpool next weekend - where Mudryk could be in line for a debut at Anfield - and further London derbies against West Ham and Fulham. They stay 10th but now level on points with Jurgen Klopp’s men, who were thrashed by Brighton on Saturday.
For Palace, however, it’s a 12th straight defeat by Chelsea and their fourth in five matches in the league ahead of more tough tests to come against Manchester United (twice), Newcastle and Manchester City in the coming weeks, as well as the derby showdown with in-form Brighton.
Patrick Vieira’s men have still yet to beat a team in the top half this season and risk reversing so much of their good progress made under the Frenchman, sitting down in 12th spot.