Midfield experiments

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A standing ovation as Eden Hazard returns from injury to replace Willian against Palace

Morrie Sarri learnt a lot from Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over a redoubtable Crystal Palace at the Bridge on Sunday as he experimented with a midfield shuffle.

Some lessons were more obvious than others. Chelsea are much better with Eden Hazard than without him – proved when the nippy winger came on during the second half and rescued a perilous position after the Eagles had equalised.

Alvaro Morata scored two, and came a whisker away from getting his hat-trick in the dying seconds. Sarri’s faith in him is being repaid, and his confidence levels are rising noticeably.

Yet while Willian has had some good games and some middling ones for the Blues in the past year, this was one of the patchier, and Sarri is wondering if the Brazilian will be in his plans next season. There are now mutterings in the corridors of power, both at Stamford Bridge and at Cobham, that he could be off-loaded in January, or in the summer.

It would be a controversial move with fans, as most still admire the player. But he looks distracted and uncertain at times, and cashing him in is a real option. There would be no shortage of suitors.

But the real issue is over the midfield. Sarri began the Palace game with N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Ross Barkley, and finished the game with Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.

Barkley, a hard-worker and a real improver this season, found it hard to break down the Palace defence. To be fair, every Chelsea player did.

The opening goal, in the 32nd minute, saw Morata convert a Pedro cross, jabbing the ball, right-footed past Wayne Hennessey, but it came after a long, blank spell of interminable passing and no progress.

The issue is whether Kovacic is better alongside Kante and Jorginho. Barkley is marginally more physical and is keener to shoot, but Kovacic edges it when it comes to link-up play in midfield, and is emerging as Sarri’s preferred choice.

There may be room for both players in the squad, but the sense is that Barkley will have to give way to Kovacic more often than not.

When Andros Townsend levelled for Palace after 53 minutes, Hennessey pulled off a string of saves as the Blues tried to claw their way ahead again. But it was only when Hazard (returning after a back injury) and Kovacic came on in a double substitution for Willian and Barkley that sparks began to fly.

Within two minutes, a Hazard free kick had looped over everyone to find Morata, who fired home. And four minutes after that the game was put to bed when Pedro stole in and converted Marcos Alonso’s cross. It was a shame that Morata, one on one with the Palace keeper in the final minute off stoppage time, couldn’t have lofted the ball another six inches over Hennessey to score a morale-boosting hat-trick.

But he’ll settle for two, and Chelsea’s unbeaten league run continues.