Even the most optimistic Palace fan must be living in hope rather than expectation when looking at this weekend’s London Derby with Chelsea. Chelsea have been the standout performers this season and with a 10 point gap over Tottenham with as many games to play, surely have the title sown up. They haven’t lost to a team lower than sixth all season, so while Palace can take a degree of optimism from our consecutive wins, clean sheets and being marginally less awful, there’s no hiding the size of the challenge that faces us at Stamford Bridge. Here’s three key battles that could go some way to deciding Saturday’s game.
Kante vs Milivojevic
N’Golo Kante needs no introduction from me, last season he was credited as being the ultimate force behind Leicester’s extraordinary feat, an argument that’s hard to argue with given both Leicester’s struggles this season along with the praise he has continued to garner from all corners of the footballing world. Kante’s real strengths lie in the protection he affords Chelsea’s back three but in recent weeks he’s shown his prowess going forwards too.
Luka is still a newbie at Palace but his introduction to the team, along with Mamadou Sakho, has seen an immediate turnaround in our solidity and has coincided with three clean sheets. When I watch him play he reminds me a lot of Nemanja Matic – a strong presence with great technical ability – but the natural comparison for Palace fans is between him and Mile Jedinak.
While Jedinak was a huge part of why Crystal Palace are playing Chelsea this weekend as opposed Carlisle, Luka is an upgrade for Palace in the defensive midfield department, even if it is an upgrade that came 5 months too late. He has the same heart, the same physical capabilities and, perhaps in time, the same leadership qualities that Jedinak displayed on so many occasions in his spell here.
His job this weekend will be about one thing; affording protection from Chelsea’s dazzling array of attacking talent. You’d imagine Luka will be the busier of the two midfielders but who comes out on top in the game is likely to be related to whether it is Kante or Milivojevic who is better, not busier.
Zaha vs Moses
Presuming Zaha continues on the left it’ll be two Palace academy graduates who’ll face up on the left hand side of the pitch on Saturday. Their experience of one another is likely to be limited, Moses left for Wigan just as Wilfried was breaking into the Palace side back in 2010, but nevertheless the match-up is a reminder of Palace’s prolific academy just a few years ago.
Sentiment aside, if Palace are going to get anything out of this game you have to feel that it’ll come from either a mistake or a piece of brilliance. Encouragingly for Palace, Wilfried Zaha is capable of conjuring both, as Russia will begrudgingly testify. Moses has proved himself a fairly accomplished defender this season but Zaha has more tricks up his sleeve than Paul Daniels and in that respect will be something fairly new for Victor to deal with.
Benteke vs Luiz
Christian Benteke has struggled in a Palace shirt for more than a few games now, scoring just twice in the league since Mid-December. He is the undoubted talisman of this Palace side, especially given his position as lone striker, the bulk of responsibility for shooting Palace to safety falls on his shoulders. A couple of weeks ago we see his passion boil over when Townsend opted to shoot as opposed to square it to him but I can only see that as a good thing, it means he’s desperate to get on the goal sheet.
This week he netted twice for Belgium and a return to goal-scoring ways for whatever side could be the shot in the arm he needs. He also hasn’t been helped by our recent performances. While we’ve looked much more defensively sound we haven’t looked nearly as fluid going forwards and though it would be a lie to say he hasn’t missed good chances, they haven’t exactly been coming along by the bus-load.