Chelsea face must-win vs. Crystal Palace as they chase top-four rivals
Chelsea head into the weekend sitting fifth in the table, five points off the top four and with just nine games remaining in their Premier League season. It goes without saying that Saturday evening's clash with Crystal Palace is a must-win game for Antonio Conte and his team.
In a perfect world, witnessing a decent performance would also be important especially with the return leg against Barcelona in the Champions League looming on Wednesday. Saturday, however, is about points pure and simple. Having lost a barely believable four of their last five league games, a scrappy win decided by a goal creeping over the line having rebounded off Eden Hazard's backside would do just fine.
At the turn of the year, Chelsea sat comfortably in the Champions League spots and looked like ending the season as the closest team to runaway leaders Manchester City. But eight points from their last eight games has seen them overtaken by their main rivals who are now threatening to disappear over the horizon. Make no mistake, Chelsea's season is on the line.
Thankfully, their fate is still very much in their own hands. There are still 27 points to play four including two "six-pointers" at home against current incumbents of the top four, Tottenham and Liverpool. Those two games, at the very least, will be must-not-lose but win both of them and hopes of playing against the elite of European football will be high. Just as important, however, will be taking as many points as possible off the other seven opponents, six of whom sit in the bottom half of the table, starting with Crystal Palace.
On the face of it, a home match against an 18th-place side, that has lost its last three league games and has collected just two points from the last 18 available should be a fairly straightforward task for the reigning English champions. The problem is that Crystal Palace have evolved into Chelsea's bogey team in recent seasons. Despite their perennial battle with relegation, the team from South East London has emerged victorious in four of their last eight meetings with their neighbours across the capital and have won the last two encounters. This is no home banker for the Blues.
Crystal Palace have a habit of getting themselves up for games with Chelsea. Remember they hadn't even scored a goal, let alone earned a point, before they beat the champions 2-1 at Selhurst Park in the middle of October, their eighth game of the season. Now it is Chelsea who need to raise their game from the defensive dystopia that they found themselves in at Manchester City last weekend. More encouraging for them will be the display at Old Trafford a week earlier when they really should have put Manchester United to the sword only for wasteful finishing, an errant linesman's flag and a strangely passive final half an hour see them return to London with nothing.
Chelsea will be successful if they impose themselves on their opponents, taking the game to them and playing at their own tempo. Nevertheless, they will still need to be defensively concentrated. Palace raced into a deserved two-goal lead against Man United on Monday night by attacking with pace and making the most of Christian Benteke's strength and aerial ability. Chelsea have bad memories of the Belgian who, with the help of Wilfried Zaha, managed to cut through Chelsea twice in as many minutes to earn a 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge last April.
There are even rumours that Zaha might feature on Saturday --having been out for a month with a knee injury --which will not be music to Conte's ears. The Ivory Coast international has scored on each of his last two appearances against the Blues and his all-round performance in both games has been instrumental to his team's victories.
From Chelsea's perspective, there will be the usual expectation on Hazard, Willian and, hopefully, whoever plays centre-forward to deliver. Equally though, it would be encouraging to see Andreas Christensen come through unscathed. The young Dane has had a tough time lately, seeing the slightest infractions go ruthlessly punished. In each of the last three games against Barcelona, Man United and Man City, he has seen an error result in a goal despite his general performances in all of them being of an excellent standard. It is a steep learning curve from which the 21-year-old will undeniably benefit in the long term, though the sooner he can start knitting together an entire 90 minutes the better, both for himself as an individual and the team as a whole.
There is much to prove for everyone, whether it be the players or the coaching staff. A win on Saturday will not be an instant panacea for Chelsea's wretched 2018 to date but it will be a start. They simply cannot afford anything but three points.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.