Chelsea-Crystal Palace Preview
The last time Chelsea won a Premier League away match, the alarm hadn't yet sounded. When they lost at home to Crystal Place the following week, someone was at least within arm's reach of the button.
More than four months on as the clubs prepare to meet Sunday at Selhurst Park, the title holders have parted ways with their esteemed if mercurial manager, and expectations have shifted so much that five points on a three-match unbeaten span have quieted those sirens to more of a tolerable yet omnipresent hum.
There may be no better fixture this weekend to sum up the chaos of the Premier League table entering the second round, even if Palace face substantial personnel issues as their manager attempts to celebrate his first full year on the job with another win. While Chelsea (5-5-9) are 14th on 20 points, Palace (9-4-6) concluded the first round of fixtures with a six-match unbeaten span (3-3-0) and are fifth, 11 points clear of their embattled London neighbours to the west and also ahead of Manchester United and Liverpool.
The Eagles, who have finished a Premier League-best 10th and 11th since their latest promotion, are situated well for a run at Europe, while last season's runaway winners are nine points back of promoted Watford, ahead of fellow risers Norwich City and Bournemouth only on goal difference, and last among the London clubs - nine points behind West Ham United.
Enter manager Guus Hiddink and there's been a relative calm, and the Dutchman has had time to assess his next opponents' success.
"If you look at the statistics you have a team that has scored 23 goals in 19 games and just conceded 16 which means (manager Alan Pardew) is well-organised with his team," Hiddink told the club's official website.
"We have started gathering some points. It was the third consecutive game we didn't lose but that's not enough. We must come now in to a winning period of games, that's important."
That extended through a goalless draw at Manchester United on Monday, albeit with the benefit of Anthony Martial and Juan Mata finding the woodwork. It was Chelsea's sixth away point, which is better than only Aston Villa (five) and Sunderland (four), and they failed to win for the 14th time to close out the first round after losing or drawing 12 times all of last season and 13 in 2013-14.
The Blues played without suspended Diego Costa and again used Eden Hazard up top to ineffective ends. The Belgium international hasn't scored in 25 matches across all competitions after scoring 14 goals in 38 top-flight matches last season.
That trailed only Costa's 20, and the Spain international will be back in Hiddink's lineup after bagging a brace before earning a yellow card in a 2-2 Boxing Day draw against Watford. His five goals in 15 league matches are certainly a disappointment, but no teammate has more for the season than he scored against the Hornets.
Costa will be the centre of the attack as Loic Remy (calf) and Radamel Falcao (thigh) are doubtful. The limited offence and its uncertain health has brought on plenty of chatter as to how Chelsea should spend when the English transfer window opens at midnight Saturday, which is only complicated by their Champions League progression.
"First of all it's important, in the situation Chelsea are in, that we have the most powerful squad possible," Hiddink told the club's official website.
Remy's former Newcastle manager, Pardew, is no stranger to the finger-pointing Jose Mourinho endured on his unimaginable way out, but Pardew and Remy's former Magpies teammate and compatriot Yohan Cabaye have found things quite pleasant in south London. The Eagles finished the first round in the relegation zone last season before Pardew was confirmed as manager Jan. 2, 2014. Dating to his first league match Jan. 10, Palace's 19 wins are tied with Leicester City and trail only Arsenal and Manchester City.
"For him he feels much better than he did at Newcastle, I think," said Cabaye, who leaves a massive gap in Pardew's midfield this weekend due to a fifth booking. "What he's done from the start (at Palace) has been fantastic."
Remy - already the apple of Remi Garde's eye as he tries to rescue Aston Villa from relegation - has been rumoured to be a potential fit for Palace to bolster an injury depleted attack that's failed to score in 182 minutes, and it'll be interesting to see how the Eagles' first window under evolving ownership is handled.
The latest goalless draw came Monday at home against Swansea City, and there's no secret scoring is what separates them from the top of the table with at least 10 goals fewer than each of the four teams ahead. There shouldn't be much of an expectation for that to change immediately with Yannick Bolasie (hip/thigh), Connor Wickham (calf), Bakary Sako (hamstring) and Dwight Gayle (hamstring) all ruled out, as well as - looking beyond this match - Patrick Bamford's disastrous loan spell from Chelsea being cut short.
"With the bodies we have available I'm confident but Chelsea looked more assured against Manchester United so they're favourites," Pardew said. "The foundation of Chelsea's team is a bit better now, they have two deeper lying midfielders and have great players."
Palace won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Aug. 29 and have never done the double in the Premier League era against the Blues, though the clubs have split the last four matches. Those two wins are the Eagles' only Premier League wins over Chelsea with two draws and nine losses.