Crystal Palace produced perhaps the performance of their season to pick up a remarkable 1-0 victory over title challengers Chelsea at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
John Terry’s second half own goal was the difference as Palace unexpectedly—but perhaps deservedly—gave a significant boost to their hopes of Premier League survival this season, but in contrast, the Blues’ title challenge looks to be in grave danger after their second away defeat in as many league games.
Jose Mourinho’s side pushed and probed but Palace undoubtedly created the better chances over the course of the 90 minutes, with Terry’s unfortunate touch from Joel Ward’s cross the decisive moment as Cameron Jerome also hit the post and Jason Puncheon squandered a number of decent chances.
Chelsea were not without a threat of their own, however, as Julian Speroni made a brilliant save from Eden Hazard with 20 minutes remaining, an intervention that ultimately secured one of the most surprising results of what has been an exceedingly unpredictable Premier League season.
The result leaves the Blues atop the table by a single point, having played a game more than Liverpool. Manchester City are two points further back, but now have three games in hand on their London rivals.
Palace, in contrast, now sit five points clear of the bottom three (in 16th) with seven games remaining in their season.
As a result Mourinho seemed to write off his side's title chances, telling Sky Sports: "Now I feel it is impossible to win the title. We depend too much on other results."
The first half was played at an impressively high tempo throughout, primarily due to the fact that the home side did not play the role of dogged defenders that many might have expected.
Instead, after an admittedly tentative start, Tony Pulis’s side continued to push forward at almost every opportunity and asked more questions of Chelsea’s defence than many sides have done this season, with Yannick Bolasie on the left and Puncheon on the right both creating openings against the usually imperious full-back partnership of Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta.
For all the endeavour, however, Palace were limited to only a few half-chances—with Bolasie failing to make the most of a zipped far-post cross midway through the half, with Puncheon moments later lashing well over after Joe Ledley’s lay-off presented him with a half-chance from 12 yards.
That was not the sum total of Palace’s threat though, with Pulis twice compelled to appeal for two penalties. Neither was avoided but both seemed to have their merits; Gary Cahill seeming to bring down Jerome without managing to touch the ball as the striker attempted to hit Puncheon’s cut-back, while minutes later replays suggested the same Blues defender had got none of the ball as he attempted to dispossess Bolasie in the box.
Chelsea rode out those two moments of panic and certainly had opportunities of their own to grasp the lead. Palace’s attacking verve occasionally left them exposed at the back, leaving room for Andre Schurrle and Eden Hazard in particular to exploit.
On countless occasions Palace’s centre-back pairing of Damien Delaney and Scott Dann were forced into desperate goalmouth interventions—although it was perhaps Joel Ward who came up with the pick of the bunch as he got in ahead of Schurrle to ensure Azpilicueta’s driven ball would not end up in Julian Speroni’s net.
At half-time the visitors were forced into one change, as an ankle knock forced David Luiz off for Oscar—with Frank Lampard dropping into a holding role alongside Nemanja Matic.
Chelsea had changed their system but Palace continued to create openings in wide areas, and soon enough they got a breakthrough. Once again it was Bolasie at the heart of matters, as he played a one-two with Ward to release the left-back towards the byline.
Ward took his time and picked a perfect cross in towards the near post, one Joe Ledley and Terry fought to meet. The defender won the race but could not control his contact, and was left to look on in despair as the ball glanced off him and inside his near post, with Petr Cech left completely stranded.
Chelsea nearly responded almost immediately—Hazard forcing Speroni into a strong one-handed save from a low 25-yard drive—but Mourinho soon opted to change things again, bringing on the pacy Mohamed Salah for Lampard.
The change did not immediately pay dividends, although as Palace began to slip deeper the visitors marched further into the opposition half, although the only tangible rewards were a series of corners.
Palace, in fact, had the game’s next gilt-edged chance—Puncheon only narrowly dragging a first-time effort wide of Petr Cech’s far post after a quick pass through from Jerome.
Terry, desperate to make amends, responded by heading a deep free-kick from Oscar only inches over the crossbar, with the Brazilian nearly combining with Salah moments later to delicious effect.
Soon after Mourinho made his final change, bringing on Demba Ba for Schurrle as he restructured his side in something approaching a conventional 4-4-2. His opposite number also set his stall for the final 20 minutes; Pulis withdrawing the flagging Bolasie for the defensive-minded Stuart O’Keefe as he tried to reinforce matters in the middle of the park.
No sooner had O’Keefe come on, however, then Chelsea had their best chance of the match. There was little he could have done about it, admittedly, as Oscar’s shot ricocheted perfectly into Hazard’s path beyond the Palace backline.
The Belgian opened his body up and fired for the top corner, but Speroni dived to his left and made the sort of save that has seen him linked with an Argentina call-up in recent months.
As they had done all match, Palace quickly responded to that scare—as Jedinak played Jerome in behind. The forward did everything right as he shot for Cech’s near post, but could only look on in anguish as the shot rebounded away off the post.
Ledley soon squandered two glorious openings in front of goal, and then Cech was forced into action once more—saving well from Puncheon after he had combined brilliantly with Jerome and Ward in a flowing move even the home side would have been happy with.
Suddenly Palace were buoyant, with even O’Keefe, the supposed defensive substitute, finding himself far enough forward to force another good save from Cech.
With the game in the final ten minutes, however, the magnitude of Palace’s potential achievement began all the more tangible, with the result that Chelsea pushed even higher and Palace sat all the deeper.
Chelsea pressed, but it was a Palace mistake that granted them their best opening. O’Keefe failed to look up as he sent a back-pass towards Speroni, one Torres anticipated expertly.
The Spaniard turned and lobbed the goalkeeper as he dashed from his line, but could only look on in disappointment as his attempt floated marginally over the bar.
Last weekend, against Newcastle, Palace conceded a winning goal in the 94th minute—but there was to be no repeat this time, as Speroni rounded off a near-flawless goalkeeping performance by claiming every one of Chelsea’s long balls into the box.
One of the results of the season was secured. For Palace, they can now dream of staying up in the Premier League for the first time in their history. For Chelsea, they now must wonder if their title challenge has stuttered at just the wrong time.
Mourinho added: "Of course, with my mentality I want to play every game and try to win every game. The main objective is to finish top four, the second objective is to finish top three—which is also important.
"I want to play every game trying to win not thinking about positions and points."
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Chelsea's next match is in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain, as they travel to Paris for the first leg of their quarter-final. They then return to Stamford Bridge to face Stoke City in the league next weekend.
Without European football to contemplate, Palace can start planning for what looks like being a vitally important six-pointer away to Cardiff City—although the pressure will be off slightly after Saturday's remarkable win.