In the end, attention inevitably remained on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first goal in Chelsea colours, Graham Potter’s substitutes and Conor Gallagher, who respected the narrative with an impressive last-minute winner.
All in all, while Potter couldn’t entirely dismiss Crystal Palace’s complaints about Chris Kavanagh’s post, it felt better to focus on the positives. There were crucial saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga, class in attack, even a decent cameo from Christian Pulisic. It was also crucial that Thomas Tuchel’s successor had seen his new team roll up their sleeves. Instead of collapsing after scoring against Crystal Palace, Chelsea had recovered; Victory rarely looked certain, but it was certainly hard-earned.
“It’s nice to have the first win in the bag,” said Potter, emboldened after his first league game ended with Gallagher scoring his first goal for Chelsea. “I was happy for the team.”
Palace, however, saw it differently. Gallagher’s supporters applauded when he came on after 76 minutes. The midfielder’s goal was painful but predictable. Gallagher was on loan at Palace last season so no one needed to tell them he was capable of scoring brilliant goals from 20 yards.
It was huge for Gallagher, who has struggled since returning to Chelsea. His momentum was hampered when he received a stupid first-half red card against Leicester two months ago. But Palace was furious. They couldn’t understand how Thiago Silva avoided a red card after thwarting an obvious scoring chance when Chelsea were 1-0 down. “It’s hard to understand,” Palace manager Patrick Vieira said. “The referee got it wrong. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Vieira felt Palace, who sat just above the bottom three, deserved a point. A sober analysis would take into account how little Chelsea created in the second half. Equally worrying was their defence, with Wesley Fofana responsible for Odsonne Édouard’s opener, and how vulnerable Jorginho looked in midfield until he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Potter, who has had time to reflect after opening his term with a draw at Red Bull Salzburg last month, has things to try. The emphasis was clearly on attack, Chelsea’s fluid 4-2-2-2 system confused Palace, Raheem Sterling’s movement a constant threat.
Likewise, it didn’t take much to throw Chelsea off balance. Palace took the lead after seven minutes, but problems were brewing when Fofana played an easy pass from behind.
If the £70m defender’s initial mistake was bad, his reaction was even worse when Édouard turned and found Jordan Ayew. Where was the urgency? Ben Chilwell, starting at left-back for the first time since opening day, fell back and when Ayew Fofana crossed he lost Édouard, who beat Arrizabalaga.
Chelsea looked shocked. Palace were prevalent for a while. Only two saves from Arrizabalaga prevented Eberechi Eze from extending the lead. But Palace needed a second goal. With Joachim Andersen injured, Joel Ward supported Marc Guéhi in central defense and the hosts looked uncertain. There were chances for Chelsea, Mason Mount headed wide and Sterling narrowly missed.
But Chelsea were just as shaky at the back. The focal point was soon reached, Silva staggered 40 yards from goal, crashing onto the turf and scraping the ball to hamper Ayew. Enough for a red? Kavanagh didn’t think twice and warned Silva and Palace seethed as a VAR bailed out the Chelsea defender.
Inevitably, Silva equalized in the 38th minute for Chelsea, overcoming Nathaniel Clyne and nodding down James’ long ball to Aubameyang, who turned Ward and scored a cool finish for his first goal since joining from Barcelona.
It was a big moment for Potter, whose job will be a lot easier if Aubameyang is revealed to be the striker capable of dealing with the pressure of wearing Chelsea’s No 9 shirt. As for Palace, their mood was little improved by Clyne being forced off with a worrying head injury and Silva catching the right-back as he got up to set up Aubameyang.
But the goal didn’t spark any improvement from Chelsea. Wilfried Zaha tested Arrizabalaga with 20 minutes remaining, forcing Potter to face his bench. Palace feared the worst when they saw Gallagher. It quickly became clear why when Pulisic connected with Gallagher whose shot flew past Vicente Guaita and dramatically improved Potter’s spirits.
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