José Mourinho: Chelsea's big players went missing against Crystal Palace

• Manager admits some players have been 'up and down'
• Claims Paris Saint-Germain game will motivate them

Gary Cahill had rather staggered from the turf while the majority in this arena roared in gleeful disbelief, his manager at his side to offer words of encouragement amid the din. The centre-half would go on to say "it feels like the end, that it is over" in choking confirmation of the death of a title challenge. There have been so many unscripted twists and turns to this pursuit that it is hard to be so definitive just yet, but the sentiment reflected the mood.

José Mourinho's gee-up was a response to Cahill's endeavours over the preceding contest, even in a first league defeat to Crystal Palace in 24 years and a first loss endured by the Portuguese in 54 games overseeing Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid against newly-promoted opposition. "I told him he was one of the guys who shouldn't be on the floor," said the manager. "He's one of the guys who should walk to the dressing room with pride that he gave everything. If someone has to sit on the floor with disappointment it should not be those who gave everything and can take no blame."

The Chelsea manager has learned much about his squad from setbacks such as this, games in which their opponents' drive, eagerness and commitment bridges a gulf in quality. The previous week Mourinho's side had defeated Arsenal 6-0, though that was in a derby that had their juices flowing: a tete-á-tete with a title rival, and an occasion with all the glitz and glamour to galvanise their approach. They travel to France on Tuesday morningfor the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain and, where a loss courtesy of an own goal to a team without reward of their own from open play since February might normally have damaged confidence, Mourinho is unconcerned.

"I don't need to do a lot now, because Paris is the kind of match they feel comfortable to play," he said. "A big match, a great stadium, opponents with top quality, the profile of referee – even if I prefer the English ones – who stops [the game] a lot and doesn't allow aggression. They will be fine. They will be in their natural habitat in that match. They can do a good match there.

"Playing against Arsenal or City, United or Liverpool is one thing and another thing is to play Palace or West Bromwich or Stoke away. Clearly, during the season, we have players up and down in relation to the profile of the match. It's personality qualities. They should be able [to play anywhere], but they are not."

His frustration will inevitably have implications for the likes of Fernando Torres and Demba Ba, and in the work-rate that will be expected from André Schürrle and Oscar. David Luiz was hauled off at half-time, Frank Lampard was becalmed and Nemanja Matic arguably endured his most ineffective afternoon since returning, all a reflection of the energy and bite offered up by Mile Jedinak, Joe Ledley and Kagisho Dikgacoi, or Joel Ward and Adrian Mariappa, or any of Palace's attackers. Take your pick. Once Mourinho had reassured Cahill he had walked straight into the home dressing room to congratulate a team whose 14 previous games against the top nine had yielded a solitary point.

"He'd come into our changing room after the Stamford Bridge game [a 2-1 defeat in December] just after Tony Pulis came here, too, and told us: 'if you guys keep that spirit and work-rate, you're not going to go down,'" said Damien Delaney, a centre-half who had considered quitting 18 months ago but is now a top-flight defender. "If we haven't got spirit, we haven't got much. But that's what we're built on, it's what we do. When you play the big teams, they like to dominate possession, but Chelsea are the opposite. They are a counter-attacking team. Just look at the Arsenal game last week. The first five minutes were all Arsenal, but with their first two attacks Chelsea were 2-0 up. But we're a counter-attacking side as well – obviously not as good as them, mind – and so if we sat off we thought they would as well, and then it kind of becomes 'who blinks first'.

"We told ourselves: 'don't get caught, don't over-commit.' The onus was on them because a draw would probably have done us. But once we were ahead we knew straight away we could do it because we'd have chances on the break." Those opportunities were missed, the hosts' anxiety alleviated by two stupendous saves from Julián Speroni from Eden Hazard, one of which the Argentinian goalkeeper admitted he "didn't even see".

Palace travel to Cardiff on Saturday for a contest, even now, they can ill afford to lose but there is new-found conviction to their campaign. For Chelsea the future is more sobering until their summer shake-up, unless other teams prove as wasteful in the title race. Both City and Liverpool have to come to Selhurst Park before the end of term. They must hope this was a freak result.

Man of the match Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace)

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