Resurgent Alvaro Morata boosts Chelsea's Premier League title hopes
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Chelsea's 3-1 win vs. Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
1. Morata sends Chelsea second
Alvaro Morata does not exactly radiate confidence as a centre-forward (as his manager admitted even after this game) Quite the opposite, in fact: More often than not, he can look uncertain, nervous and lacking the sort of ego that powers someone like Diego Costa, his predecessor at Stamford Bridge. His current demeanour, though, should betray growing belief.
Morata scored twice in a 3-1 win vs. Crystal Palace, a result that takes Chelsea second, above Liverpool. The double strike means the Spanish international has five goals in his last six games in all competitions which, considering he has spent much of the season on the bench behind Olivier Giroud, is not bad at all. Chelsea will hope that Morata can continue to show the form as the difference-making striker for whom paid £60 million last summer.
Palace, seeking a third win in four visits to their London rivals, looked more purposeful in the opening half hour. Wilfried Zaha ran and threatened, but neither he nor any of his teammates could convert openings and Chelsea cashed in when Morata neatly flicked home after making himself a yard of space in the penalty area.
But while Maurizio Sarri's men looked to have settled into the game, they failed to press home the advantage and were made to pay seven minutes into the second half. James McArthur played a neat pass through to Townsend, who raced into the space vacated after David Luiz lost concentration and was pulled toward the ball, and the Palace winger rammed an emphatic shot into the bottom corner.
Chelsea went close with a couple of headers, from Morata and Luiz, before Sarri called for his trump card. He estimated before the game that Eden Hazard could manage around 40 minutes; in the end he was given just over 30, but took only two to make an impact.
For it was Hazard's free kick, clipped to the far post, that Morata brought down and drilled, left-footed, into the bottom corner. Shortly afterward Pedro swept home to make it 3-1 and the game was safe.
2. Hosts avoid another Stamford Bridge slip
This was a significant three points for Chelsea, if only because it was a match in which they took the lead and won, something they did not manage in each of their last two home league games.
Granted, those were against Liverpool and Manchester United, but had they thrown away more points after going in front, as they looked in danger of doing when Townsend levelled the scores, questions might have been asked about their mental fortitude.
Sarri has equalled the record for a manager going unbeaten at the start of his Premier League career. The 11 games in which Chelsea have avoided defeat in matches a 24-year-old record; if you guessed that the co-holder is Frank Clark of Nottingham Forest, then congratulations, claim your prize!
Few could have envisioned a better start under Sarri, whose players have almost instantly adapted to his methods and expectations. While the conventional wisdom at the start of the season was that only Liverpool could challenge Manchester City for the title, Chelsea have showed they are genuine contenders.
3. Palace badly need a No. 9
There can rarely be a side more in need of a proper centre-forward than Crystal Palace.
In the opening stages of this game, Roy Hodgson's men were so positive that optimism grew for a genuine contest. Perhaps Chelsea could even suffer their first defeat of the season to a side that were just positive enough to scare them, but sensible enough to stay solid.
Zaha is the Premier League's most significant "MVP," the player on whom his team relies most, and particularly in the early stages he caused havoc in a Chelsea defence that can look shaky. However, despite the inroads made by the brilliant forward, Palace could not convert their chances.
That is broadly because Zaha is his club's biggest creative danger and its main goal threat, a man trying to be in two places at once. Had he been partnered by a proper striker, then who knows what might have possible in this game and where they might sit in the table, instead of 14th with only eight goals to their name.
Hodgson is doing the best he can with the resources available, but he has to field Zaha and another winger in Townsend up front. His only other options? Jordan Ayew came off the bench, while Alexander Sorloth still hasn't scored for the club, Connor Wickham is just returning from injury and the injured Christian Benteke is long removed from the striker he once was.
A genuinely potent striker would not only provide a goal threat, but take some of the attention off Zaha and give him more space to do damage. More often than not he is double-marked, with any opposition team safe in the knowledge they do not have much else to worry about.