Chelsea needed an 89th-minute penalty from substitute Noni Madueke to edge past Crystal Palace 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and climb back into the top half of the Premier League table.
It had looked like being another frustrating home outing for Mauricio Pochettino’s side for most of the second half, after Michael Olise had cancelled out Mykhailo Mudryk’s early goal with a brilliant finish on the half-volley on the stroke of half-time.
Nicolas Jackson missed a superb chance to win it, slotting the ball wide after being set up by Conor Gallagher.
But with the game drifting towards what would have been a deserved point for Palace, there was a final twist, Eberechi Eze tripped Madueke as he sought to control the ball on the edge of the box, and the England Under-21 international won the match from the spot with his first league goal of the season.
Chelsea opened the scoring after 13 minutes, and it began with Malo Gusto slipping his man in midfield with a smart shimmy and turn.
Driving over halfway, his pass forward was wayward, but interest in Chelsea’s attack was revived by a critical slip by Nathaniel Clyne whose stumble let the ball run on. That allowed it to reach Christopher Nkunku, who fed the galloping Malo Gusto on the overlap and his centre was gratefully turned home first time by Mudryk.
The Ukraine international had made an electric start and would have made it two shortly afterwards but for a smothering block by Palace goalkeeper Dean Henderson, closing the angle well after Mudryk had been slipped in by a deft Jackson back heel.
There was a fluency about Chelsea that has rarely been seen in recent weeks. Nkunku on his long-awaited first start was at the heart of things. Fresh from his role in the opening goal, he played a wonderful ball in for Jackson, whose low drive was aimed fractionally wide of Henderson’s far post.
The France international might then have had his first Stamford Bridge goal after 25 minutes had he not kicked the turf when clean through on goal, under pressure from defender Chris Richards.
Chelsea were industrious with the ball, racking up 323 passes during the first half and recording 63 per cent possession and – unlike so often this campaign – they had created gilt-edged chances to go with it.
And yet, in the final seconds of the half, a familiar sinking feeling for home supporters. Richards went in strong on Levi Colwill to win the ball in midfield and it broke out wide to Jordan Ayew.
Palace had men in the box and the one picked out by Ayew’s laser-like aim was Olise, who brought it down confidently on his chest, took a momentary glance at Djordje Petrovic and lashed it inside the Chelsea goalkeeper’s near post to make it 1-1.
Palace were without a win in seven games but the goal, though against the run of play, brought belief.
Eze whistled a free–kick past the post as the visitors registered the first chance of the second half, as Roy Hodgson’s side went toe-to-toe with their hosts.
Pochettino left Thiago Silva on the bench for only the second time in the league this season, but called on the 39-year-old just before the hour mark, alongside Romeo Lavia, who finally made his Chelsea debut.
Armando Broja was also sent on as the spectre of another disappointing home result loomed.
Minutes later, their moment looked to have arrived. Moises Caicedo scooped a pass forward to Gallagher who had found space centrally and the captain showed a keen awareness of space to find Jackson running through, but – with only Anderson to beat – he clipped the ball agonisingly wide.
That was followed by a fine, prodded finish from Axel Disasi’s pass that VAR rightly ruled out for offside.
Broja took one down and well drilled into the side netting, after Olise had drawn a smart near-post stop from Petrovic at the other end.
Chelsea thought two more points had slipped away at home. Then with two minutes to go, Madueke went over Eze’s leg, a VAR review yielded a penalty and the substitute picked himself up knock home the winning goal.