Chelsea close in on second with Brighton win at the Bridge
Álvaro Morata scored his 10th Premier League goal of his first season at the club
Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata heads a goal against Newcastle at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: PA
Chelsea 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 0
Chelsea could survey their work on St Stephen’s Day with some satisfaction at the final whistle. A stubborn Brighton & Hove Albion side were eventually ground down, the visitors beaten into submission after the interval with the home side’s lead never really threatened once established, to ensure the gap to Manchester United in second has been closed to a point.
The summit may still be remote, but Antonio Conte’s side at least boast some much-needed momentum.
The head coach could point to his team’s toils up to the break as further evidence – if any more was required – that reinforcements will be required next month to add some attacking thrust. This team used to be able to rely on a Diego Costa to batter or bully opponents when creative forces were slightly off their game, with this was too blunt for comfort until Álvaro Morata scored a 10th Premier League goal of his first season at the club when the second half was still in its infancy.
Their quality told thereafter and Chris Hughton, too, could argue Brighton’s board should push the boat out to secure an instinctive finisher of the calibre of Celtic’s Moussa Dembélé to give them an edge in contests this tight.
The closest Hughton’s side came to registering was a thumping header from Shane Duffy late on which looped wide of the far post with Thibaut Courtois static. They had come seeking to contain and while the visitors’ resilience would be eroded in the end, their game-plan had been exemplary throughout the first period.
Hughton had this side drilled to perfection defensively, Dale Stephens consistently willing to drop back from midfield to supplement the back-line and both Duffy and Lewis Dunk a formidable central partnership. The absence of Anthony Knockaert and Pascal Gross from the starting lineup had been an indication of a desire to frustrate and stifle but as the rain poured down, Chelsea ran aground consistently on Albion’s barrier. When Cesc Fàbregas did find time to loft a pass beyond the back-line, Mat Ryan reacted smartly to turn aside Victor Moses’ volley.
Otherwise, Chelsea’s only real glimpse of goal up to the interval came as Brighton struggled to clear a corner, Eden Hazard’s subtle touch sending Fàbregas to the byline to cross, with Antonio Rüdiger nodding back and Tiémoué Bakayoko prodding wide of the near post. The sight of opponents massing deep inside their own territory seemed to sap the pace and, too often, accuracy from the home sides’ passing. Certainly there was no fluency to their game and as the anxiety set in, Tomer Hemed should have done better at the other end only to mistime his leap to reach Markus Suttner’s centre, allowing Rüdiger to suffocate the attempt in mid-air.
Perhaps Conte, so agitated in his technical area through that goalless period, spent the interval reminding his players of the need to inject some urgency to their play. Rather than easing back into a drab rhythm, they had unsettled the visitors from the resumption and 40 seconds after the restart, finally found a breakthrough. The goal was familiar in its construction, César Azpilicueta whipping over a cross which veered beyond Dunk and Brighton’s back-line and was met emphatically by Morata, alone between centre-halves, who headed in via Ryan’s left hand.
The 37th attempt mustered by Chelsea in the fixtures either side of Christmas had yielded the team’s first reward, with their attacks all the more threatening as belief flooded back into their approach. Ryan, so impressive since arriving from Valencia last summer, did well to push away Marcos Alonso’s free-kick, then to deny the Spaniard’s near-post flick at the resultant corner, though Albion’s respite was brief. Fàbregas’s corner from the other side again prompted panic, with Alonso guiding his header into the far corner.
That lanced the tension with Brighton, uncertain whether to chase a recovery or settle for relatively slim punishment, stretched whenever Hazard took possession, with Dunk doing well to stretch on his goal-line and block the Belgian’s drive in the wake of N’Golo Kanté’s sprint from deep inside his own half on the counterattack.
Bakayoko, again benefiting from Hazard’s dart across the six-yard box, would soon be shooting wide of a gaping net with Albion’s discipline drained. Whenever Chelsea played at pace, the visitors were vulnerable. It just took them time to find their rhythm.