N’Golo Kante showed signs he is growing into his more advanced midfield role with a composed finish that gave Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Sunday.
Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri has been criticised for moving Kante out of his more familiar position in front of the back four, with Jorginho filling the holding role.
As a result, Kante’s effectiveness this season has been questioned, but the former Leicester City man impressed as he struck the 51st minute match-winner that helped the Blues tighten their grip on fourth by opening up a five-point gap to Arsenal.
Kante followed a perfectly timed run to meet David Luiz’s chipped pass with a clinical finish to cap a dominant display by Sarri’s side against London rivals Palace.
Chelsea’s failure to add to Kante’s third league goal of the season will have given Sarri some concern, though, and would have proved costly had Palace substitute Connor Wickham not skied a late chance over the bar.
The Italian manager reshaped his forward line by including Olivier Giroud as the central striker — a decision that handed Alvaro Morata another reminder of his place in the strikers’ pecking order at Stamford Bridge.
The Spaniard was among the substitutes, while Giroud’s inclusion freed Eden Hazard from his recent duties as a false nine, allowing the Belgium international to return to his more familiar position on the left of the front three.
But despite dominating, particularly in the second half, Chelsea’s chances remained limited.
Hazard quickly made the most of his freedom to drift in from the flank, testing the Palace defence with a number of runs from deep.
The Belgian’s 34th-minute run towards the home penalty area drew a foul from Cheikhou Kouyate and led to the game’s first real opportunity.
Willian’s curling free-kick from 25 yards took a deflection off the defensive wall before clipping the outside of Vicente Guaita’s right-hand post.
The Palace goalkeeper did well to punch the resulting corner clear, but Willian almost caught the Spaniard out with a fierce low shot from distance.
This passage of play suggested Chelsea were beginning to assert themselves but Palace’s belief had clearly been strengthened by their victory at champions Manchester City eight days previously.
The home side appeared happy to concede territory in the hope of hitting Chelsea on the break and it was little surprise the game remained locked in stalemate at half-time.
It did not take long, however, for Sarri’s side to breach the Palace defence at the start of the second half with Luiz injecting the moment of creativity needed to find a way through.
The centre-back was allowed time to pick his pass and his perfectly weighted chip fell into the path of Kante who had made a positive run towards the penalty spot.
The France international controlled the ball on his chest before hitting a left-foot shot that flew wide of Guaita’s dive.
Having dominated long periods of the game before the goal, Chelsea assumed total control after Kante’s opening goal.
Guaita was called to save yet again from Willian after the Brazilian was set up by a clever Hazard backheel before Giroud saw his second effort of the game ruled out for offside.
Wickham’s 89th-minute chance gave Sarri’s side a late scare but this was a comfortable Chelsea win.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)