Kante strike helps im­pres­sive Chelsea tighten grip on top four

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sport Soccer - DOMINIC FIFIELD at Sel­hurst Park

The score­line may give the im­pres­sion Chelsea squeezed out a sec­ond suc­ces­sive win in their trav­els but, in re­al­ity, Mau­r­izio Sarri’s team may not en­joy too many away vic­to­ries as com­fort­able as this. One flash of qual­ity was all it took to claim the spoils across south Lon­don and open up a five-point gap from fifth place. Crys­tal Palace failed to muster a sin­gle shot on tar­get all af­ter­noon. They never dis­cov­ered whether the vis­i­tors were frag­ile or not.

This had been des­per­ately hum­drum un­til N’Golo Kanté, his head coach’s half-time in­struc­tions pre­sum­ably still ring­ing in his ears, in­jected some im­pe­tus early in the sec­ond half.

Chelsea had been prob­ing, David Luiz siz­ing up his op­tions in pos­ses­sion in­side Palace’s half, when the France mid­fielder took it upon him­self to dart be­hind and away from Cheikh Kouy­até and be­tween Pa­trick van Aan­holt and Ma­madou Sakho to the edge of the six-yard box. David Luiz’s lofted pass was per­fectly weighted, with Kanté col­lect­ing neatly on his chest and steer­ing his close-range fin­ish in be­yond Vi­cente Guaita’s out­stretched left hand.

It was a fine goal ut­terly out of char­ac­ter with ev­ery­thing mus­tered up to then, and plenty there­after. Palace had been stub­born, or­gan­ised but dis­tinctly un­am­bi­tious and tooth­less go­ing for­ward. Chelsea’s tempo had been slack, lack­ing in­ven­tion and in­ci­sion when con­fronted by a five-man mid­field bar­rier, un­til they roused them­selves to­wards the end of a dreary open­ing pe­riod to strike the wood­work twice. Even then, the hosts would have had cause for com­plaint had ei­ther ef­fort ac­tu­ally se­cured the lead.

Eden Hazard, scut­tling into a rare pocket of space, had clipped his own heel 11 min­utes from the break be­fore tum­bling, with Craig Paw­son award­ing a gen­er­ous free-kick. Wil­lian struck that on to the out­side of the post as Guaita dived, with the ref­eree com­pound­ing his ear­lier er­ror by spy­ing a non-ex­is­tent touch from the goal­keeper. Wil­lian would test the Spa­niard again from dis­tance at that set-piece, forc­ing a sec­ond cor­ner from which Ross Barkley, hav­ing shoved James McArthur away, ac­ro­bat­i­cally flicked a shot on to the same up­right with his back to goal.

The flurry of chances had hinted at prom­ise but would not have sat­is­fied Sarri, fid­get­ing in frus­tra­tion in his tech­ni­cal area, even if the lead se­cured early af­ter the break duly lifted the Ital­ian’s mood. Chelsea felt in com­plete con­trol against a side who can­not se­cure for­ward re­in­force­ments – with Dominic Solanke, on loan from Liver­pool, likely to be the first – soon enough.

Palace would even­tu­ally in­tro­duce Con­nor Wick­ham to pro­vide more punch but, other than the sub­sti­tute plant­ing a half-vol­ley over the bar, a team who had plun­dered three goals at Manch­ester City just be­fore Christ­mas rarely boasted a threat. Their cal­en­dar year has fiz­zled out, and they can­not con­sider them­selves clear yet of trou­ble. – Guardian

N’Golo Kante scored the only goal of the game for Chelsea at Sel­hurst Park

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