In a game of defence versus attack, Chelsea needed their striker to rise to the occasion. They needed ruthlessness in front of goal. They needed Tammy Abraham to stay calm after a difficult first half, to be ready when his moment arrived.
Fortunately for Frank Lampard, Abraham has not allowed his head to drop once this season. The 22-year-old has a long way to go before he is held in the same regard as Didier Drogba and Diego Costa but there is no doubt that he is on the right path. Crystal Palace did not allow him a single sight of goal during the first half but Abraham was nerveless when he finally shook off Gary Cahill and James Tomkins early in the second half.
The positives flowed for Lampard. He picked Chelsea’s youngest starting XI in the Premier League but they dealt maturely with Palace’s spoiling tactics. Abraham’s 11th strike in all competitions set them on their way and Chelsea, whose starting XI had an average age of 24 years and 88 days, cemented their position in the top four thanks to Christian Pulisic’s fifth goal in his last games.
Chelsea deserved their sixth consecutive league win, even though they were confronted by a familiar conundrum during a frustrating opening 45 minutes. They have struggled to take their chances at home this season and this threatened to become a grind against opponents with no intention of taking part in an open game. Palace made their intentions crystal clear from the start and their defensive organisation ensured this was nothing like Chelsea’s breathless draw with Ajax on Tuesday.
With Jorginho serving a one-game suspension, Lampard needed N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic to set a brisk tempo in midfield and there were promising signs for the hosts during the early stages. They zipped the ball around impressively, pinned Palace back and their full-backs, Emerson Palmieri and Reece James, were given the freedom to operate as auxiliary wingers.
Eager to make an impact on his first league start, James stormed down the right inside the first minute before sending in a cross that Vicente Guaita had to tip behind for a corner and the opening goal should have arrived when Willian surged forward before freeing Pulisic on the left. The winger should have taken an early shot but he decided to dance around Joel Ward and while he beat the right-back with a sharp piece of footwork, his final touch took the ball close to Guaita, allowing the Palace goalkeeper to smother his dink.
Chelsea craved an early breakthrough. Palace played with little ambition – Wilfried Zaha had few opportunities to run at James on the left – and their combative approach infuriated the crowd. Roy Hodgson’s players were quick to put themselves about, committing 12 fouls before the break, and their defiance was summed up by Cahill, determined to impress against his old club, making a heroic block to deny Willian when Guaita diverted another cross from James into the Brazilian’s path.
Yet Chelsea rose to the challenge presented by Palace’s negativity, taking the lead with a splendid goal in the 52nd minute. The outstanding Kovacic darted inside from the left and jabbed a pass to Willian, who carved Palace open with a superb flick to Abraham. Level with Palace’s back four, he took a touch before calmly placing a low finish beyond Guaita.
Abraham’s first goal at Stamford Bridge eased Chelsea’s nerves and they threatened to overwhelm Palace for a while. Kovacic, full of confidence, drilled a volley out to Pulisic. The American ran inside, shook off Cahill and his drive looked destined for the top corner before Guaita dived to his right to palm the ball over the bar.
There were brief flickers from Palace, who threatened an equaliser when Tomkins nodded a free-kick wide, but Chelsea clinched the points in the 79th minute. A deflected shot from Michy Batshuayi, who spent last season at loan, spun through to Pulisic and the American’s header sealed a comfortable win.