To give you an indication of how much time had passed between Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s previous Chelsea goal and this, it occurred on a night when Maurizio Sarri brought on Gonzalo Higuain as a substitute.
His has been a grueling, unyielding life, one that has included catastrophic injuries, a severe lack of playing time, and severe competition for positions. Loftus-Cheek had been somewhat forgotten, a little too easy to overlook in the throng. He started England’s last World Cup match, which makes you take a second look.
So, if anybody deserves some good fortune, it’s him. Kai Havertz’s cross deflected off Marc Guehi and into the path of Loftus-Cheek without him having to break pace, and it bounced up wonderfully as well. His effort would have beaten Jack Butland anyhow, but the deflection off Joachim Andersen ensured it. Loftus-Cheek ran for ten or fifteen meters before jumping into the air. Nobody is going to be able to take this one away from him.
A clinical move and some half-speed defense extinguishes any Crystal Palace optimism ten minutes later. Timo Werner masterfully controls the ball on his chest and sends a pass into Mason Mount’s feet. His finish is straightforward, with the ball being passed into a portion of the goal rather than fired. Three Palace players exchange glances, like a swarm of pawns that have just let a knight fall on their queen.
Sunday rest follows Saturday’s fever. The brilliance of Manchester City’s games versus Liverpool is that they can switch between various pressing and control patterns when each team or manager seizes the narrative. The formula was set in the opening five minutes at Wembley on Sunday and scarcely shifted: Chelsea possession without penetration, Crystal Palace counter without clinicality.
Perhaps this reflects the significance of this game to both sides. Saturday’s teams aren’t uninterested in the FA Cup, but their seasons will be defined by victory in other competitions.
Chelsea needs the FA Cup to keep their momentum going after losing the Champions League and Premier League finals, as well as the League Cup final. It meant considerably more to Palace, who have never won a major prize. Tension may make or break a competition, but it can also ruin an aesthetic spectacle.
We had to wait 24 minutes for our first attempt, a looping header from Kai Havertz that landed into Jack Butland’s palms. Havertz’s booking for simulation was undoubtedly the most intriguing event of the first half, and it was a brilliant judgment by referee Anthony Taylor.
Chelsea were guilty of moving the ball too slowly through midfield, and their danger down the right flank was limited by Cesar Azpilicueta playing right wing-back with Reece James in central defense. Thomas Tuchel likely moved the two to take advantage of James’ quick comeback.
This season, Patrick Vieira has sought to supervise a possession revolution at Selhurst Park but has lately erred on the side of practicality. Vieira saw Brentford demolish Chelsea at Stamford Bridge by absorbing pressure and launching rapid counter-attacks, so he imitated their structure and basically tried the same tactic. In the first half, Palace controlled 35% of the ball.
The success of such a strategy is dependent on two factors. To begin, you must resist any pressure exerted by your opponents (which Palace did with consummate ease). Then you must weave rapid movements of one- and two-touch passing exchanges together.
That is where Palace failed. When Wilfried Zaha drifted left, James dealt with him beautifully, while Jean-Philippe Mateta performs a good job of appearing terrific one minute and shambolic the next. After 54 minutes, he was replaced by Jordan Ayew, who showed little improvement.
That eventually became the deciding factor. Palace produced about the same amount of opportunities as Chelsea, as well as chances of relatively comparable quality. However, when Chelsea went into overdrive for 15 minutes, Palace got more ragged rather than less. They took use of their chances, but the second goal crushed their spirits.
Eberechi Eze played a reverse pass five minutes from time, eliciting moans from the Palace end. The truth was that he had no other alternatives. Selhurst’s spirit has been shattered for a long time.
That is the distinction between top teams and those that want to be better; between FA Cup experts and aspirants. Palace fans raised flags and chanted at the top of their voices until the final whistle; they trust in Vieira’s ongoing progress.
But they confront the reality that every non-financially privileged club faces: to beat the greatest, you must be flawless and depend on the flaws of others. That will happen from time to time — they are your days of awe. Most of the time, it won’t. Chelsea has reached their sixth FA Cup final in six years; Palace will be hoping for a repeat next year.