Chelsea’s title challenge suffered a major blow with John Terry’s own goal helping Crystal Palace to a fully deserved 1-0 victory at Selhurst Park.
A second defeat in three matches for Jose Mourinho’s men could prove fatal to their hopes, with Liverpool and Manchester City now able to relegate Chelsea to third spot by the weekend’s end. Having been superb in demolishing Arsenal 6-0 just a week ago, the contrasting fortunes of Chelsea against the big teams and the rest was again in full evidence.
While able to strike the better teams on the break, Chelsea have struggled throughout the season to break down stubborn, well-organized opposition. And Palace were that and more. Tony Pulis deserves huge credit and has overseen a major step toward avoiding a relegation that appeared a near-certainty when he took over.
Chelsea were anemic throughout going forward. The decision to start with a midfield three of Nemanja Matic, David Luiz, and Frank Lampard was hard to comprehend. Up front, the injured Samuel Eto’o was missed, while Eden Hazard was largely kept quiet other than one glorious chance from which Julian Speroni produced a fantastic save.
Instead, it was Palace that created the clearer openings throughout. Had it not been for the errant finishing that had seen them go without scoring in their three previous matches, Palace would not have needed to rely on Chelsea’s captain heading past his own goalkeeper early in the second half.
Palace had initially looked vulnerable, especially in almost being caught out to a trademark Chelsea counter-attack. The break culminated with Cesar Azpilicueta putting in a fine low cross that Andre Schurrle appeared poised to convert, but Joel Ward did superbly to get there first and turn it behind.
For much of the rest of the half Azpilicueta was given an uncomfortable time at the other end. Palace’s best chance of the period came when Jason Puncheon and Adrian Mariappa combined well down the right and the winger’s cross presented Yannick Bolasie with a clear sight of goal at the back post, but after initially struggling to control the ball he fired into the side netting.
Chelsea were perhaps even more fortunate to escape not conceding at least one penalty. Mourinho again suggested before this encounter that there were forces working against his team in the defeat against Aston Villa. Such insinuations would be even more outlandish this time around. Twice in a matter of minutes Gary Cahill brought a player down in the box. While it was hard to be sure of contact first time around on Cameron Jerome, he certainly went through Bolasie in order to get a foot to the ball and stop the winger going through on goal.
With Torres again largely anonymous, and heading over with one of his few contributions, Palace continued to be the side most likely to break the deadlock. Puncheon blasted over after some unconvincing pinball in the Chelsea box toward the end of the half. Within seven minutes of the restart the home side would have a deserved lead.
Schurrle’s lack of tracking back was exposed to allow Ward to be found in far too much space down the left. The full-back’s near-post cross looked harmless, with Joe Ledley unable to get to it and Cech coming to claim, but Terry instead directed it past his own goalkeeper to send the home fans into jubilation.
Mourinho, who had already brought on Oscar for Luiz at half-time, quickly responded to going behind by increasing his side’s attacking options still further with the introduction of Mohamed Salah. And Chelsea immediately threatened the Palace goal with a fierce half-volley from Hazard that Speroni did well to turn behind. That the effort was Chelsea’s first on target in the contest spoke volumes.
Chelsea’s chief threat continued to be from set pieces. Terry who had failed to snap up a chance from a corner before Palace went ahead then headed over with an opportunity to equalize. The visitors finally created a clear opening from open play with 17 minutes remaining. Even then there was an element of fortune about it. Oscar’s deflected shot fell kindly for Hazard in the box and the Belgian appeared to be already be wheeling away in celebration after shooting toward the corner only to see Speroni pull off a superb save to keep the ball at bay.
By that point Demba Ba had also been introduced in Chelsea’s increasingly desperate attempts to get back into the game. Unsurprisingly, that left ample space on the break for Palace to exploit and the hosts repeatedly came close to exploiting that vulnerability and doubling their lead. Most agonizing was when Jerome shot against the post having been played through down the left. From almost the same position, Ledley’s finishing was twice found wanting as he volleyed and then shot wide of the target.
But Chelsea were unable to make Palace pay for their profligacy as they went down rather feebly to a defeat that hands the initiative to Liverpool and, especially, Manchester City in this continually unpredictable title race.