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Crystal Palace 1 Chelsea 2

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CHELSEA had stumbled in this corner of south-east London back in the spring, the deficiencies with which they had been saddled at the time exposed by workaholic opponents. A little under seven months on, they used their return as an opportunity to demonstrate the steel that has been instilled in the interim. They are a team transformed.

José Mourinho has recognised as much. Back in March he had scribbled the word “balls” on a journalist’s notepad at this venue having been asked what his players had lacked when succumbing to Crystal Palace. He took up his pen again post-match here, scrawling “big balls” to sum up what had made the difference this time round. This had been awkward, a fractious occasion which saw players from both sides dismissed before the interval, but it ended up feeling like a show of strength played out largely to a tempo Chelsea imposed.

Their dominance was underlined by two moments of jaw-dropping quality conjured by a fluid and inventive midfield, players revelling in Nemanja Matic’s leggy presence at their back, though it was the visitors’ ease in possession which truly separated them from their spirited hosts.

In March they had been drawn into attempting to compete physically with an imposing Palace team. Here they preferred to ping passes merrily among themselves and bypass Palace’s industry. The home side may have started brightly and finished with a flurry, courtesy of Wilfried Zaha embarrassing Filipe Luis to set up Fraizer Campbell for a consolation, but they had been eclipsed for long periods. The narrow scoreline was actually rather deceptive.

Admittedly it helped that the dismissals of César Azpilicueta and Damien Delaney opened up vast expanses of space in which Chelsea could prosper, but they could still take heart from the fact they achieved all this without Diego Costa, the Spain international absent resting his hamstring for the foreseeable future. “Our only chance was to impose our game and, from minute one to 94, we did that,” said Mourinho. “We had the ball. We were always in control. We were always very far from our box. People moved the ball well. We played between the lines. And we played very well: the way Matic, Fàbregas and Oscar moved when it was 10 against 10 was fantastic.

“We are a better team than last season. There has been a clear evolution in our team, and not just because we brought in two fantastic players [Fàbregas and Costa]. One of them wasn’t playing today, but our team was still fantastic. I’m pleased. But to win the title, it’s a long way away.”

They remain five points clear, their blistering start maintained and, even with Costa resting, they threaten to plunder goals throughout their lineup. Campbell and Brede Hangeland may have gone close early on for Palace, but the real bite was Chelsea’s. When Delaney stretched and connected illegally with Willian 20 yards out, Oscar strode up to belt the resultant free-kick majestically beyond a despairing Julián Speroni and into the top right-hand corner. The 23-year-old had only returned from Brazil’s friendly thrashing of Japan in Singapore on Thursday. It was as if he had never been away.

Delaney would not see out the half, his first caution delivered after he slid in on Loïc Rémy and his second, almost served up as an afterthought by the referee, flashed for pulling back the same player. There were covering defenders that time which made the offence unnecessary, though Palace’s real frustration was the fact they had enjoyed a man’s advantage for under four minutes. The momentum should have been theirs after Azpilicueta’s untidy lunge, studs up, into Mile Jedinak, but hope proved horribly short-lived. The Spaniard’s challenge had been wild and right in front of the overworked official, Craig Pawson.

In truth, the referee cut an increasingly fraught figure amid the niggles and was subjected to Neil Warnock’s bellowed exasperation in the tunnel as the teams retired at the break, the home manager’s gripe perceived inconsistency. “I thought [Chelsea] influenced him at times, but he’s young,” said the Palace manager. “It’s inexperience, I guess. John Terry should have been booked for definite [for fouling Campbell] earlier on, and that set a precedent.”

His team competed for all but the lull at the start of the second half, but momentum had effectively been sucked from their display by Delaney’s departure. Fàbregas duly confirmed as much, the Spaniard exchanging passes with Eden Hazard and Oscar as he danced between dizzied defenders to convert inside Speroni’s near-post as the goalkeeper slumped the other way.

It was a goal of beauty, the classy passing and movement untouchable, and it knocked both stuffing and ambition out of the hosts until their stoppage time consolation. “The second goal was a scandal, unbelievably good,” added Mourinho. His team have shown they are capable of such brilliance. A season of opportunity beckons. – The Guardian

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