A fiercely-contested London derby was settled by Ramires’s stunning first-half strike, moving us to within two points of leaders Arsenal.
Fernando Torres had given us the lead with 15 minutes played, turning home a loose ball after Willian’s shot hit the post, but an impressive Palace side struck back through Marouane Chamakh.
Ramires restored our advantage soon after, stroking home from the edge of the box, and it was a lead we hung on to despite some nervy second-half moments. We had some opportunities of our own to extend the lead but no further goals meant a fourth win in five league outings for the Blues. The three points could prove even more pivotal ahead of our next Premier League clash, away to Arsenal, who lost at Manchester City today.
Jose Mourinho made six changes to the side that defeated Steaua Bucharest in midweek, starting in goal, where Petr Cech returned in place of Mark Schwarzer. As Mourinho promised Cesar Azpilicueta was chosen at left-back, while in central midfield Michael Essien and Ramires replaced the duo that had started there on Wednesday, John Mikel Obi and Frank Lampard. Torres was chosen to lead the line ahead of an attacking triumvirate that included Willian, Juan Mata and the in-form Eden Hazard, making his 50th Premier League appearance.
For the visitors, Adrian Mariappa replaced Dean Moxey in Tony Pulis’s only change from the 11 that beat Cardiff 2-0 last weekend.
It was a scrappy opening 10 minutes which, in truth, Crystal Palace shaded, hassling and harrying the Blues into uncharacteristic mistakes and offering an attacking threat of their own. It took a dipping volley from Ramires, positioned well outside the box, to get us going, and before long, we had the lead.
With a quarter of an hour gone, a concerted spell of possession, that included gradual territorial gains, ended with Willian picking up the ball 20 yards from goal. The Brazilian looked to his left, but seeing nothing on, dipped a shoulder, teed himself up and fired in a low drive that Julian Speroni could only tip onto his post. Torres was on hand to gobble up the rebound for his second league goal of the season.
Buoyed by taking a lead that wasn’t necessarily completely deserved, we immediately sought a quick second. A delicate Mata back-heel released the marauding Branislav Ivanovic, who bore down on Speroni’s goal at some pace, but the Serbian’s shot only grazed the far post.
A marked improvement in our play since Torres struck meant Palace’s leveller, on 28 minutes, came as something of a surprise. Cameron Jerome had tested Cech, speculatively, a minute earlier, but it was a goal started and finished by his strike partner, the in-form Chamakh, that levelled the scores.
The Moroccan won the ball in midfield, with the ball eventually finding its way to Joel Ward on the left channel. His cross was behind the retreating Blues defence, but not Chamakh, who turned it in on the volley from six yards out.
Mata weaved his way into the box sixty seconds later with an immediate riposte in mind, but couldn’t pick out a blue shirt in the middle. There was a reward for a quick break on 34 minutes, however, and it arrived in some style.
The ball was worked out to the left in the direction of Hazard. He inched his way into the box but opted to play the ball back to Ramires, hovering on the edge of it. The Brazilian took a touch and arrowed a thunderbolt into the top left-hand corner, the pace and precision of the strike leaving Speroni motionless. It was a special way for Ramires to open his account at Stamford Bridge for the season.
Speroni had one more save to make as we ended the half on top. Hazard pinched the ball off Mariappa in the corner and teed up Willian, but a deflection took the sting and the direction out of his side-footed shot and it was comfortable in the end for the Palace stopper.
The Blues started this half more aggressively, seeking a killer third through Mata and then Ramires, but as the game opened up, Palace were looking threatening too.
Jerome blasted over from range before Jason Puncheon stung Cech’s palms having turned Azpilicueta inside and out. A dangerous Puncheon set-piece – won for a tackle which earned Essien a yellow card – picked out Damien Delaney, but the defender could only direct his header straight into Cech’s grateful arms.
That dead-ball warning was seemingly not heeded on 68 minutes when Delaney was again first to an inswinging Puncheon free-kick, but this time his header was high and wide. Ivanovic was booked in the build-up, ruling him out of Tuesday’s Capital One Cup trip to Sunderland.
Before that, Mourinho had shuffled his pack for the first time, replacing Mata with Oscar on the hour, but the steady tide of Palace pressure showed no signs of waning.
There was an extraordinary let-off for the Blues on 76 minutes. Jerome tricked his way past David Luiz, not for the first time, and squared for the substitute Stuart O’Keefe. His first shot beat Cech but was superbly blocked on the line by the sliding Terry. The ball ricocheted back to O’Keefe, but this time the despairing dive of Ivanovic thwarted him when a second Palace equaliser seemed certain. The panic finally came to an end when Ivanovic hacked the ball clear.
The respite proved temporary, however. A Puncheon corner, to the near post, was again won in the air by that man Delaney, but with arguably the best of his three second-half openings he flashed his header wide.
With the match now well into its final quarter, nerves around the Bridge were starting to fray. Ramires had the ideal opportunity to kill the contest but wasted a three-on-one situation with an under-hit pass that Speroni dropped on as subtitutes Oscar and Demba Ba waited to pounce.
Then, on 87 minutes, a scramble that resembled the one Palace hadn’t capitalised on earlier in the half ensued, this time in the Eagles’ box.
Andre Schurrle, introduced in place of Willian, swapped passes with Ba but with just Speroni to beat thumped his shot into the Palace keeper’s chest. Ba was on hand for the rebound but this time the stretching Speroni saved brilliantly, and when the ball ran to Ramires, he sliced wide.
Four minutes of stoppage were safely negotiated, save for one more Delaney header that caused some more problems in our box, and a hard and evenly-fought London derby ended with the Blues 2-1 winners, and now just two points behind leaders Arsenal ahead of our trip to the Emirates a week Monday.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, David Luiz, Terry (c), Azpilicueta; Ramires, Essien; Willian (Schurrle 81), Mata (Oscar 61), Hazard; Torres (Ba 83).
Unused subs Schwarzer, Cole, Lampard, Eto’o.
Scorers Torres 15, Ramires 34
Booked Essien 57, Ivanovic 68
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Delaney, Gabbidon, Ward; Bannan (Bolasie 49), Jedinak (c), Dikgacoi (O’Keefe 25), Puncheon; Chamakh (Gayle 87); Jerome.
Unused subs Price, Parr, Williams, Campana.
Scorers Chamakh 28
Booked Chamakh 42
Referee Mark Clattenburg