Chelsea reclaimed fourth spot in the Premier League with a 4-1 win at Selhurst Park that met with little serious resistance from start to finish. More importantly, perhaps, in the longer term, they did so with Kai Havertz playing a fine, incisive hand as the central attacker.
On a freezing afternoon in south London Chelsea’s £70m summer signing was all clever movement, cute touches and even – of all things – a well-taken goal.
“Kai will never be our emotional leader and we don’t expect him to be,” Thomas Tuchel said afterwards. “But we need to see his quality, he needs to be in the high positions, he needs to show he can do better. There is still room to improve in finishing, he can be more ruthless.”
If Tuchel refused to be drawn on his superlatives, it is worth remembering these things become more manageable when the opposition barely turn up until the game is gone. And this was a startlingly one-sided game in its opening hour, as Jorginho ran the midfield and the blue shirts swarmed all over their hosts.
Tuchel rested Reece James here, with Callum Hudson-Odoi in at right wing-back. He also resisted some diffuse pressure to reinstall a “proper” central striker and persisted with Havertz in the false-ish 9 role. It is not hard to see why. Tuchel wants above all to control the ball and has a Pep-like yearning for technicians, ball-players, midfielders. Plus, of course, the club really do need to get something out of Havertz, whose ceiling is extremely high, his price tag even more so.
Roy Hodgson stuck with the team that drew with Everton on Monday, with Wilfried Zaha close to Christian Benteke in attack.
Not that it made much difference as Palace began like a team startled to find themselves taking place in an actual live football match.
Chelsea dominated from the kick-off, pouring relentlessly down the right flank. After eight minutes they were ahead. A succession of blue‑shirted attacks saw the ball arrive at the feet of Havertz 10 yards out. He slid it neatly into a corner.
Palace looked stunned, a team sill gasping for air. And two minutes later it was 2-0. Havertz gave the final pass, but this was a wonderful team move, the light blue shirts zipping the ball around on the left, Havertz pausing just long enough to slide his pass into Christian Pulisic’s run. The finish ripped into the roof of the net.
Still Chelsea continued to dominate, the front three lurking in half spaces, creating overloads with the wing-backs on both flanks. With 23 minutes gone it should have been 3-0 as Jorginho played a fine lofted forward pass and Havertz produced a Gazza-style combination, a flick over the head of Patrick van Aanholt with his left foot followed by a low shot with his right, only to see Vicente Guaita make a fine save.
The visitors’ third goal duly arrived on the half-hour, assisted by Mason Mount’s free-kick. Kurt Zouma leapt high, held the pose, then sent a fine header into the top corner.
Palace mustered a first serious attack at 3-0 down, but before long Mount was drawing another fine save, Van Aanholt was heading off the line, and the pattern of steamrollering attack versus defence was re-established.
The half-time tally read 11 shots to zero, and 79% possession to the visitors. It seemed generous. Really, only 11?
The Palace players had left the pitch visibly frustrated at half-time, subjected not just to Ray Lewington’s usual hoarse cajolings, but shouts of dismay from teammates in the stand.
There was a shift towards some kind of parity after the break. Ben Chilwell shimmied through on the left, but shot wide when he might have laid on a simple finish.
And with an hour gone Palace finally began to play. Benteke scored with their first attempt at goal, finishing neatly after Jeffrey Schlupp had skated around N’Golo Kanté to cross.
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It was Benteke’s second goal at Selhurst Park since April 2018, a bizarrely barren record for such a lavishly rewarded international centre-forward.
The introduction of James McCarthy had stiffened a brittle midfield but Chelsea still kept on making chances, with Havertz producing some lovely flicks and Mount waspish coming in off the left.
Pulisic added Chelsea’s fourth on 77 minutes, making just the right run to slot home a fine cross from the second-half substitute James, and stilling any further thought of Palace resistance.