Chelsea had a strong penalty appeal ignored, wasted glaring chances, dominated territorially for long spells and were thwarted on countless occasions by the excellence of Wayne Hennessey and Mamadou Sakho. In a game of fine margins, they could consider themselves unfortunate not to have emerged with at least a point. Under another manager – one from the recent past certainly comes to mind – the post-match analysis might have featured barbs about negative opponents, criticism of the officials or a whinge about bad luck.
But there was none of that from Antonio Conte after Chelsea’s charge to the Premier League title hit an unexpected snag against Sam Allardyce’s punchy and resilient Crystal Palace. Conte kept his cool. These things happen. There was no tirade in the dressing room, no airing of grievances. For the Italian, luck is a dirty word. “I don’t like this word,” Chelsea’s manager said. “In a lot of situations you can score or not. In many situations, sometimes you shoot and score. Today we shot a lot of times but the ball wasn’t going to go into the goal.”
Chelsea had 24 of them and the ball did go in once, Cesc Fàbregas turning Eden Hazard’s low centre past Hennessey after five minutes. It looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for Palace at that point, but their response was magnificent and they led by the 11th minute, smart goals from Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke earning them a crucial victory in their battle against relegation. Allardyce’s side are four points above Hull City in 18th place and have a game in hand on them.
The shock of that sudden turnaround never quite subsided. It was a strangely undisciplined performance from Chelsea, who lacked focus and ideas in their pursuit of an equaliser, organisation in defence and balance without the injured Victor Moses. Pedro filled in at right wing-back and Fàbregas supported Hazard and Diego Costa in attack, but Conte’s tweaks did not have the desired effect.
One defeat does not equal a crisis. Chelsea’s lead over Tottenham Hotspur stands at an imposing seven points with nine matches left. Yet there have been occasional signs of vulnerability. Manchester City will visit Stamford Bridge on Wednesday aware that Chelsea have not kept a clean sheet in the league since 22 January.
These are nervy times. A win for Pep Guardiola’s team could properly reignite the title race and Conte was evasive when it was put to him that City’s expansive approach could make them the perfect opponents for a side with Chelsea’s counterattacking qualities. “I think it’s another game,” he said. “I don’t know if they are the perfect team for us. I know Man City started the season wanting to win the title. They have a really strong squad. But I think it’s right to think about ourselves. To go game by game. In England every game is very tough, whether the name of your opponent is City or another team.”
On a frustrating weekend for the club, at least Hazard’s response to a question about reports linking him with Real Madrid provided some comfort. “You want to get me in trouble?” the Belgian said. “I’m fine at Chelsea. I have things to finish this year. I still have a contract until 2020. So I’m fine here.”
As glad as Chelsea were to hear that, they will be even happier to see the back of Zaha. The Palace winger was outstanding, scoring a brilliant equaliser and setting up Benteke’s winner, and Allardyce may face a fight to keep him at Selhurst Park this summer.
“A player of Wilfried’s capabilities, if you see them grow and become quality players for your team and continue to help you win football matches, it’s bound to make interest from other football clubs,” the Palace manager said. “So I think when that day comes, we can’t moan about it because we’ll have done all we can for Wilf, and Wilf will have done all he can for Crystal Palace.
“But Wilf is on a long contract so there’s not that danger at the moment. He is starting to enjoy his football by his performances, I think you’ve seen that. The decision he’s made playing for Ivory Coast now is final. So he goes and enjoys his football more for his international team when he gets called up for them. He has got the all-round game at the minute and I hope he keeps it up.”
Zaha has been criticised in certain quarters after deciding to represent the Ivory Coast instead of England and the regret for the Football Association will continue to grow if the 24-year-old continues to shine for club and country.
“As far as I know, and I’m not apportioning blame to anybody, but it wasn’t done when it could have been done, and Wilf made a decision to play for the country he was born in,” Allardyce said. “So it’s happened.”
Zaha was not in Allardyce’s only England squad. Asked how he would have handled the situation, Allardyce swerved the question as skilfully as Zaha evaded Chelsea’s defenders.
“Was he on my to-do list?” he said. “I’ve got to say yes to that, haven’t I. I brought in Michail Antonio on the basis of how well he was performing for West Ham at the time. You aways look across the board at who’s in great form at that particular time.”
Ah, what might have been.