LONDON, March 29- Chelsea’s Premier League title hopes suffered a major blow after John Terry’s 52nd-minute own goal condemned Jose Mourinho’s side to a 1-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Crystal Palace on Saturday.
The loss, Chelsea’s second successive away defeat, meant the league leaders were unable to increase the pressure on Manchester City and Liverpool, their nearest challengers.
For Palace, a first win in six games moved Tony Pulis’s side five points clear of the bottom three and improved their chances of avoiding an immediate return to the Championship.
Chelsea were unable to find a response after Terry had headed past Petr Cech from Joel Ward’s cross and Mourinho must now lift his side ahead of their Champions League quarter-final first leg at Paris Saint-Germain.
Mourinho had chosen to focus on the defeat at Aston Villa two weeks previously, and not last weekend’s comprehensive 6-0 defeat of Arsenal, in the build-up to this game, repeating his criticism of referee Chris Foy’s performance at Villa Park.
The Chelsea manager admitted that he feared the loss could prove costly to his side’s title hopes and acknowledged that they could not afford to slip up again against another team in the bottom half of the table.
Perhaps with one eye on the midweek trip to Paris, Mourinho made a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, employing David Luiz, Nemanja Matic and Frank Lampard in a three-man midfield.
The change appeared to unsettle the visitors and they struggled to find the fluency that marked the opening stages of the victories against Galatasaray and Arsenal that followed the loss at Villa.
Against the Gunners, Chelsea had been 3-0 up inside 17 minutes.
On this occasion, it took them the same period of time to create the first notable chance, with Cesar Azpilicueta finding his way to the byline and producing a low cross that Andre Schurrle directed wide.
It was Palace, though, who responded more positively to that opportunity, with Pulis’s side offering more of a forward threat after withstanding Chelsea’s early pressure.
– Penalty appeals –
Yannick Bolasie’s pace down the left was causing Branislav Ivanovic problems and the winger should have put Palace ahead in the 25th minute when he was picked out by Jason Puncheon’s right-wing cross.
The DR Congo international had time to control the ball and finish, but his first touch was poor and he could only find the side-netting when he finally got his shot away.
That should have been a warning for Chelsea, but the visitors seemed unable to move through the gears.
And they survived two more scares before the break when Palace twice had strong appeals for a penalty turned down.
Visiting centre-back Gary Cahill was involved in both incidents, appearing to catch Cameron Jerome late in the 28th minute and then halting Bolasie with a sliding tackle four minutes later.
Referee Lee Mason deemed neither incident worthy of punishment, but it appeared that Pulis was offering a different view when he walked off the pitch with the match official at the interval.
Mourinho clearly believed that his side had under-performed during the first period and replaced Luiz with Oscar at half-time.
The early signs were that Chelsea would not repeat their first-half showing and they could have been ahead four minutes after the restart had Terry not scuffed a clear chance from a Lampard corner.
Once again, though, Palace’s response was impressive.
Within a minute Jerome had sent a glancing header wide from a Bolasie cross when he should have done better.
The miss was quickly forgotten, however, as Palace produced another left-wing cross, this time from Ward, that Terry diverted into his own net under pressure from Joe Ledley.
Chelsea were stunned and their attempts to recover came to nought after Julian Speroni saved from Eden Hazard and Terry headed over.