At the end the attention inevitably lingered on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first goal in Chelsea colours, Graham Potter’s substitutions coming off and Conor Gallagher respecting the narrative with a stunning last-minute winner.
All things considered, for all that Potter could not entirely dismiss Crystal Palace’s complaints about Chris Kavanagh’s officiating, it felt better to dwell on the positives. There were pivotal saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga, flashes of class in attack, even a decent cameo from Christian Pulisic. Crucially, too, Thomas Tuchel’s successor had seen his new side roll their sleeves up. Instead of crumbling after going a goal down to Crystal Palace, Chelsea had rallied; victory rarely looked secure, but it was certainly hard-earned.
“It’s nice to get the first win under the belt,” said Potter, who was encouraged after his first league game ended with Gallagher scoring his first goal for Chelsea. “I was delighted for the team.”
Palace saw it differently, though. Their supporters had applauded Gallagher when he came on after 76 minutes. The midfielder’s goal was painful but predictable. Gallagher had excelled on loan at Palace last season, so nobody needed to tell them that he is capable of bending in brilliant goals from 20 yards out.
It was huge for Gallagher, who has struggled since returning to Chelsea, his momentum stymied when he picked up a foolish first-half red card against Leicester two months ago. Yet Palace were livid. They could not understand how Thiago Silva avoided a red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity when Chelsea were 1-0 down. “It’s difficult to understand,” Patrick Vieira, Palace’s manager, said. “The referee gets it wrong. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Vieira felt that Palace, sitting just above the bottom three, merited a point. A sober analysis would take in how Chelsea created little during the second half. Just as worrying was their defending, with Wesley Fofana at fault for Odsonne Édouard’s opener, and how vulnerable Jorginho looked in midfield until being replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Potter, who had time to think after opening his tenure by drawing with Red Bull Salzburg last month, has to try things out. The emphasis on attack was clear, the fluidity of Chelsea’s 4-2-2-2 system confusing Palace, Raheem Sterling’s movement a constant threat.
Equally it did not take much to break Chelsea’s equilibrium. After seven minutes Palace went ahead, trouble brewing when Fofana played a slack pass out from the back.
If the initial error from the £70m defender was bad, even worse was his reaction as Édouard turned and found Jordan Ayew. Where was the urgency? Ben Chilwell, starting at left-back for the first time since the opening day, backed off and when Ayew crossed Fofana lost Édouard, who beat Arrizabalaga.
Chelsea looked shocked. Palace were rampant for a while. Only two fine saves from Arrizabalaga prevented Eberechi Eze from extending the lead. Yet Palace needed a second goal. With Joachim Andersen injured, Joel Ward partnered Marc Guéhi in central defence and the hosts did not look entirely secure. There were chances for Chelsea, Mason Mount heading wide and Sterling going close.
Yet Chelsea were just as shaky at the back. The flashpoint soon arrived, Silva dithering 40 yards from goal, tumbling to the turf and clawing the ball to impede Ayew. Enough for a red? Kavanagh thought not, cautioning Silva, and Palace seethed when a VAR let the Chelsea defender off.
Inevitably Silva made Chelsea’s equaliser in the 38th minute, rising above Nathaniel Clyne and nodding James’s long ball down to Aubameyang, who spun Ward and produced a cool finish for his first goal since joining from Barcelona.
It was a big moment for Potter, whose job will be much easier if Aubameyang turns out to be the striker capable of coping with the pressure of wearing Chelsea’s No 9 shirt. As for Palace, their mood was hardly helped by Clyne being forced off with a worrying head injury, Silva catching the right-back when he rose to set up Aubameyang.
Yet the goal did not spark an improvement from Chelsea. Wilfried Zaha tested Arrizabalaga with 20 minutes left, forcing Potter to turn to his bench. Palace feared the worst when they saw Gallagher. It soon became clear why when Pulisic linked with Gallagher, whose shot flew past Vicente Guaita and dramatically improved Potter’s mood.