Christopher Nkunku swagger bolsters youthful Chelsea to late Crystal Palace win


Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace (Mudryk 13′, Madueke pen 89’| Olise 45+1′)

STAMFORD BRIDGE — On came Thiago Silva, who looked around the pitch, finding himself 13 years older than any of his Chelsea team-mates against Crystal Palace.

It was a quite extraordinary statistic to emerge at Stamford Bridge in a game in which Mauricio Pochettino fielded the youngest starting XI in the club’s history — the eighth youngest ever in the Premier League — then turned to a 39-year-old when a promising, initially vibrant performance was beginning to crumble.

It was indicative of Chelsea in the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital era: out with the old and in with the new, yet everything being a little too new, the young players undeniably talented but still so raw, the collective inexperience too significant for them to compete anywhere near where Chelsea expect to be competing. The injuries have taken their toll, with not quite enough oomph throughout the squad to cope with it.

With such a youthful line-up there was, nonetheless, a marvellous abandon to Chelsea’s first half, their opening goal and the individual unpredictability of Malo Gusto to create it.

Picking up the ball on the right, around half-way, Gusto sprung the move with a dribble and pass in to Christopher Nkunku on the edge of Palace’s penalty area, then took off in the direction he had just passed the ball.

Nkunku’s first attempt at a through ball failed, but by then Gusto had made a bizarre 40-yard cross-field overlap. Nkunku slipped him free on the left, from where he played the ball across for Mykhailo Mudryk to convert.

There was a swagger to Nkunku, finally making a first start after an extended period out injured following a £52m move in the summer, that reverberated throughout the entire Chelsea side. Mudryk was sharp, Nicolas Jackson was confident, Conor Gallagher was leaping in to block a shot then leaping to his feet to control the ball with his laces before it dropped to the turf.

How they were not ahead by several goals at half time was baffling.

Jackson played a delightful back-heel pass for Mudryk to burst into Palace’s box, but the Ukrainian’s dink was blocked by the on-rushing Dean Henderson.

Jackson did brilliantly to beat Joachim Andersen to a Chelsea clearance, then shrug him onto the floor before laying into Nkunku’s path, only for Nkunku to swing and miss the ball completely.

Still, there was clear evidence of naivety. When a poor pass to Gallagher inside Chelsea’s half was easily cut out and left them exposed, Pochettino literally hopped up and down in his technical area in apoplexy.

That attack fizzled out, but a defensive switch-off ended up costing them an equaliser in first-half stoppage time. From the left Jordan Ayew crossed to the far post where Michael Olise was completely free, controlling the ball with his chest before smashing it past Djordje Petrovic with a fine half-volley.

It appeared as though neither Moises Caicedo or Levi Colwill knew which of the pair was supposed to be marking the Palace forward. Had either of them done so, Chelsea would likely have been ahead at the break.

Palace were on top in the second half but Silva’s introduction in the 58th minute rebalanced the team, while the young legs did all the running around him. It almost wasn’t enough, then 21-year-old Noni Madueke came from the bench to win then covert a penalty in the 89th minute.

But when Silva halted a dangerous Palace attack deep into stoppage time it was the Brazilian’s name that echoed around the Stamford Bridge stands.

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