Chelsea 1-1 Brighton: Romelu Lukaku had given the Blues the lead before sustained second-half pressure from the Seagulls eventually paid off at Stamford Bridge
No sooner had they got their title push going again, Chelsea have been stopped in their tracks. A Danny Welbeck header turned a necessary three points into a meagre one in the 91st minute in what was as deserved a 1-1 as they come from Brighton and Hove Albion‘s perspective.
Romelu Lukaku had given Chelsea a lead they held for 63 minutes, albeit with not much conviction. But having made it through normal time, and just as thoughts turned to events further west where Manchester City were holding onto a 1-0 lead of their own against Brentford in an 8:15pm kick off, Welbeck hung in the night sky and guided an immaculate header into the top corner to earn Brighton a draw. Having bettered the defending European Champions on possession (52.4 per cent) and shots on target (six to five), they leave knowing they themselves could have taken all three.
Most disappointing for Tuchel was that this result came with an additional cost. Reece James went off after 27 minutes with a suspected hamstring issue. The wing-back, who has been Chelsea’s player of the season so far, had been operating on the left, with Christian Pulisic adopting James’ usual position on the right. Then Andreas Christensen had to be taken off at half-time after hurting his lower back. Though the extent of any damage is unknown at the time of writing, it caps off a bittersweet final week of 2021 after Thiago Silva and N’Golo also sustained injuries in the Boxing Day win over Aston Villa.
Kante was at least on the bench on Wednesday night. And the blow of losing James was momentarily alleviated when Lukaku headed in Mason Mount’s corner just as Marcos Alonso had taken to the field.
The finish itself – a header at the near post, powered into the ground and nestling in the far corner – was crisp, however the events leading to it warranted further scrutiny from the VAR officials. Neal Maupay finished second best as he tried to block off Lukaku. After a few minutes, the goal was upheld as the Belgian’s jostle for room was deemed legal.
This was Lukaku’s first start since October, something he shared with Mateo Kovacic who came in for Kante as one of four changes. While the Croatian looked rusty, Lukaku was imperious, picking up where he left off after a match-winning cameo in the second-half against Villa with some immaculate hold-up play and the kind of runs that ensured he was a nuisance to every member of Brighton’s back three. His 5th goal of the season, a second in as many games, was the least he deserved.
Brighton, to their credit, were not dulled by going behind after 28 minutes. They were typically engaging, finishing the first half strongly with their first two shots on target coming in quick succession: the second of which was a firm left-footed strike from Adam Lallana that required a sharp dive and firm hands from Edouard Mendy.
A quirk coming into this fixture was that Brighton had never scored a goal at Stamford Bridge. Last season’s 0-0 draw was in fact their first point in six visits to this part of west London. But they arrived with a spring in their step, having overcome a slump with a 2-0 victory against Brentford on Boxing Day and having only lost once on the road all season.
They were also welcoming back Yves Bissouma from suspension to shore up their midfield as one of their three alterations. The 25-year-old was the best on show in the middle third, and was integral to the wave upon wave of pressure the visitors unleashed in the second half in search of their equaliser. And it was no surprised when Tuchel responded on 67 minutes by bringing on Kante to wrestle back some control.
Up until the Frenchman’s arrival, the chances were totting up for Brighton. Jakub Moder shinned over the bar at the start of the second period, then Bissouma stung the finger tips of Mendy with a strike from 30 yards. Neal Maupay wriggled free from Trevoh Chalobah (Christensen’s replacement) to fire wide from the edge of the box before he had a shot blocked by Antonio Rudiger after Alexis Mac Allister had dragged Mendy away from goal. Lallana then fired over from just 10 yards that.
At times it felt like one-way traffic, but Chelsea should have doubled their lead in this period when Callum Hudson-Odoi led a two-on-one counter attack only to be outfoxed by Joël Veltman, who had positioned himself smartly, eventually intercepting the pass intended for Mason Mount.
It was Hudson-Odoi’s last act, as he made way for Kante, and Chelsea, now reinforced with a three-man midfield, were able to dictate some terms of their own. A combination of an extra man to circumvent and fatigue meant Brighton’s passing was that little bit sloppier, allowing interceptions in their own half and inviting pressure onto themselves.
But they did not veer from their method, and were rewarded for endeavour with a goal that has serious repercussions in the title race. A move from left to right not long after the clock had ticked over to 90 minutes made its way to Marc Cucurella on the left. His cross was hung up high enough and long enough for Welbeck to match it with a sensational leap to guide into the top corner. Mendy was rooted to his spot.
There were as many hands on heads as yelps of joy once Mike Dean blew the final whistle after the four minutes of added time had elapsed. For Brighton, a result of this magnitude was further evidence of their worth as Premier League furniture.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are left to consider theirs as would-be champions. The points dropped here, coupled with Liverpool’s defeat on Tuesday evening has pushed Manchester City further into the ascendancy. And the defending champions are threatening to run away with it in the second half of the season just as they did this time last year.