Football Features

Chelsea’s history-making side end terrible 2023 at Stamford Bridge on a positive note

By Harry Edwards

Published: 21:44, 27 December 2023

Chelsea ended a terrible year at Stamford Bridge with victory thanks to their 2-1 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.

It hasn’t been a good start to life as Chelsea manager for Mauricio Pochettino, with the Blues once again fighting for their lives in mid-table, far away from the European battle. But Chelsea’s problems go back farther than the Argentinian taking charge in the summer.

One of the big problems has been Chelsea’s home form, with the Blues really struggling to make Stamford Bridge a fortress. You don’t have to be too old to remember Chelsea going on an 86-game unbeaten home run in the Premier League between March 2004 and October 2008, a record that spanned four managers, started by Claudio Ranieri and ended by Luiz Felipe Scolari via Avram Grant and, of course, Jose Mourinho.

Before the visit of Crystal Palace, Chelsea had played 21 games at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League in 2023, losing eight. That’s just one fewer defeat in 2023 than they had suffered between 2020 and 2022. There were also eight draws and just five wins, with Crystal Palace, Leeds United, Luton Town, Brighton and Sheffield United the only teams to leave Stamford Bridge empty handed in the Premier League this year.

Morale was low going into the game too, with another defeat to Wolves at the weekend which also saw Raheem Sterling and Cole Palmer pick up their fifth yellow cards of the campaign, ruling him out of the post-Christmas fixture. The absence of Sterling, and rotation of Thiago Silva onto the bench meant that Chelsea named their youngest ever Premier League starting XI with an average age of 23 years and 21 days. It was the eighth youngest ever by any side in Premier League history, and the youngest since Man Utd named an XI with an average age of 22 years and 284 days at the end of the 2016/17 season, also against Crystal Palace.

Christopher Nkunku was the oldest player in Chelsea’s starting XI, celebrating his 26th birthday last month, with Axel Disasi the only other Blues player 25 or above. It was Nkunku’s first Premier League start after his debut against Wolves at the weekend, which brought a goal, and although he is very much not at full fitness the Frenchman looked bright.

He was involved in Chelsea’s opening goal, but that was all about his compatriot Malo Gusto. Starting at right-back in place of the injured Reece James, Gusto picked up the ball in the middle of the pitch and turned his man with a great first touch before going on a driving run. As he passed the ball into Nkunku, Gusto kept running over to the left, which meant he was in the right position to benefit from a couple of lucky bounces. His ball across the box to Mykhailo Mudryk was a nice pick out, with the Ukrainian calmly tapping it in.

Mudryk was another to thrive in the first half, asking a lot of questions of the Palace defence, looking dangerous and there were chances for him to add to his tally. But, as has been the case so many times this season, Chelsea could not finish their chances and they were punished just before half time.

Palace’s equaliser came as Chelsea failed to recover following a set piece, with a ball over the top of Michael Olise who oozed class with his first touch and finish at the far post — a goal his performance deserved, running things for the Eagles. It was a goal that will have hit Chelsea hard too, as Olise had spent seven years in the Blues’ academy before leaving at the age of 14. Chelsea have now conceded 59 goals in the Premier League in 2023, their most in a calendar year in the competition.

The second half brought more of the same for Chelsea and they looked to be heading to a ninth home draw in 2023, and it wouldn’t be undeserved. Pochettino’s men hadn’t really tested Dean Henderson in the second half, until Nicolas Jackson missed a big chance when played through one-on-one, sending his effort wide. Moments later he thought he had put Chelsea ahead with a good reactive finish, but he had just edged offside.

As the game looked to be petering out to a draw, Chelsea were awarded a penalty after Noni Madueke was fouled inside the box by Eberechi Eze — a decision they did have to wait for VAR to confirm after it wasn’t given initially. Madueke stepped up and coolly finished, sending Henderson the wrong way, sealing Chelsea’s third consecutive home league win — something they hadn’t achieved since October 2022 — and just sixth in 2023.