Chelsea will aim to resume their steady march towards the Premier League title after an international break in which the focus was on the future of Eden Hazard.
The 26-year-old Belgian star sat out Chelsea’s last game at Stoke City as well as Belgium’s fixtures during the recess with a calf problem but should return for the visit of Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge.
The forward, though, has still found himself the centre of attention following reports this week he is a target for Real Madrid.
Hazard has been one of the main factors in Chelsea’s dominance of the Premier League table this season -– Antonio Conte’s side face Palace sitting ten points clear, with ten games remaining –- after rediscovering the form he showed in the 2015 title triumph.
Chelsea are determined to hold on to the player but the interest from Spain has provided an unwanted distraction as Conte attempts to maintain his team’s concentration during the run-in.
But the head coach’s efforts won’t have been helped by comments made this week by former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon who insisted Hazard’s future will be decided by the player himself.
Calderon told talkSPORT radio station: “Chelsea aren’t a selling club, so it wouldn’t be easy, but as always it would depend on the wishes of the player. If he wants to leave, he will leave – that’s always the point.”
There has been no indication Hazard wants to leave and Conte will expect the player’s response against a much-improved Palace to underline his commitment to remaining at Stamford Bridge.
The return of striker Diego Costa, who missed Spain’s meeting with France because of ankle injury, will also help Conte’s side pick up from where they left off before the break.
The victory at Stoke was secured by a late goal from Gary Cahill that came as a blow to second-placed Tottenham who have been hoping to capitalise on any slips made by Conte’s side.
With an FA Cup semifinal meeting with Tottenham also looming at the end of April, Conte remains on course for a league and cup double in his first season in English football after leaving the post of Italy coach last summer.
‘DISAPPEARING EGG TIMER’
A few weeks ago, the visit of Palace would have been viewed as a routine three points for the Blues.
However, they have shown significant signs of improvement recently with manager Sam Allardyce confident he has plugged the defensive holes that contributed to the team’s fall into the bottom three.
Four victories in the last six games -– each secured on the back of a clean sheet -– have moved Allardyce’s side four points and two places clear of the relegation zone.
New signings Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic have been credited with adding steel to the side.
Wilfried Zaha’s form has helped reignite the debate about the winger’s decision to reject England, despite winning two caps in friendly internationals, and commit himself to Ivory Coast.
Speaking after last Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, England coach Gareth Southgate appeared to suggest Zaha had imposed a timescale for his selection by England.
However, the comments drew a strong response in a statement that came through the player’s agent
Will Salthouse said: “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England, there was no ‘disappearing egg timer’. The ‘private’ meeting with Mr Southgate was very amicable.
“It was Wilfried’s personal choice and it was his right as a senior player to accept the opportunity to represent his nation of birth and that of his family heritage.
“His ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision.