Chelsea find way past Crystal Palace thanks to Noni Madueke’s late penalty

Chelsea’s Noni Madueke showed composure to score the winner from the penalty spot. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

The optimist in Mauricio Pochettino will look at the persistence that brought Chelsea victory over Crystal Palace and see proof that it is possible to build something coherent out of this talented but infuriating collection of young talents. The pessimist, however, will find it hard to ignore the frailties that could easily have resulted in more frustration for his side.

It is no exaggeration to say it could have gone either way. Palace started brightly and had their moments after equalising through Michael Olise just before half-time. Chelsea dominated after Mykhailo Mudryk’s early goal, lost their way, and defied expectations by regaining the initiative just when it seemed they had resigned themselves to a draw that would have kept them in the bottom half and deepened the gloom around Stamford Bridge. One-one would have been fair. But so would 2-1 to Palace, or 4-1 to Chelsea, or maybe 2-2 after a last-gasp Matheus França equaliser.

In the event, though, the randomness of life at Chelsea would be captured by the identity of their unlikely match-winner. One of their less eye-catching signings during last January’s splurge, there have not been many occasions when Noni Madueke has seemed to enjoy Pochettino’s trust. Injuries have hit the winger and opportunities have been limited.

Before this game his record in the league this season read one start, six substitute appearances and zero goals. It seemed telling that, with Raheem Sterling and Cole Palmer suspended, Pochettino’s response was to start Ian Maatsen on the right.

Yet there is undeniably a good player waiting to emerge in the England Under-21 international signed from PSV Eindhoven, even if his situation says much about Chelsea’s youth project. Some kids settle quickly, some need more direction and the results probably will be weird – and yet if you are able to throw on a £29m winger when you need a goal against Palace there is every chance that the sheer financial mismatch will tell eventually.

“We can count ourselves very unfortunate to have lost,” Roy Hodgson said, reflecting on a defeat that keeps Palace three points above the bottom three. “There are two referees – one on the pitch and one in a studio somewhere. It’s a fact of football life at the moment.”

It is also a fact, though, that Madueke was fouled by Eberechi Eze after tricking his way past the Palace midfielder with little left on the clock. It needed a VAR review but it was a clear and obvious decision. “Stonewall,” said Madueke, who stepped up to convert the spot-kick. “You want to be able to make an impact when you come off the bench.”

It meant there was relief for Pochettino. “We are Chelsea,” he said. “Maybe this type of game was not that great, but it is important that we step up our mentality.”

The constant flux within his squad has not made it easy for Pochettino to build, a reality underlined by the Argentinian making five changes after the defeat to Wolves. Injuries have bit hard – Enzo Fernández remained absent in midfield – as has Chelsea’s chronic indiscipline. They can be rash and the fact this was Chelsea’s youngest ever starting lineup in the Premier League emboldened Palace.

When Chelsea did click, though, there were moments to make their fans purr. After a slow start they came alive when Mudryk sprayed a diagonal pass behind Tyrick Mitchell. Palace were grateful Dean Henderson came rushing out to deny Maatsen.

The focus soon drifted to Christopher Nkunku’s full debut in the No 10 position. After a goal-scoring cameo against Wolves, Chelsea were desperate for proof that their problems can be traced back to the forward picking up a knee injury soon after his move from RB Leipzig last summer.

There would be encouragement. Chelsea were lively when they beat Palace’s press. Malo Gusto surged inside from right-back and Nathaniel Clyne’s slip gave Nkunku space. One reverse pass was enough to free Gusto to cross for Mudryk, who beat Henderson from close range.

Michael Olise equalises for Crystal Palace in first-half injury time. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Chelsea missed chances to make it 2-0. Palace duly made it 1-1. Stoppage time arrived, a set piece was partially cleared and Maatsen lost out to Chris Richards. The ball moved left, Jordan Ayew crossed and Levi Colwill lost his bearings. Olise, who almost joined Chelsea last summer, lashed a shot past Djordje Petrovic.

It was not Colwill’s first error of the season. The left-back remains raw. Mistakes are inevitable at this level. Even Palace, winless since early November, are capable of rooting out weaknesses. How much is down to mentality? Palace imposed themselves; Eze, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Olise worried Petrovic.

Pochettino responded by replacing Colwill with the wise old head of Thiago Silva. Maatsen went off for Roméo Lavia, another expensive debutant. Armando Broja and Madueke came on. Nicolas Jackson missed a golden chance and had a goal ruled out for offside. A stalemate looked likely. Chelsea, and Madueke, kept pushing.