Willian’s timely intervention keeps Chelsea on course
Branislav Ivanovic in danger of sanction after clash with Ireland’s James McCarthy
Chelsea’s Willian (left) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winner against Everton at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Gerry Penny / EPA
Chelsea 1 Everton 0
Every season, there are always the standout moments in the title race, when everything falls into place for the team that will eventually finish at the top of the league. For Chelsea, this felt like it could conceivably be one. The clock was just turning into its 90th minute when Willian let fly with his right boot and Chelsea had been agitated to the point that Branislav Ivanovic had been guilty of a headbutt that will surely warrant another Football Association disciplinary charge.
Ivanovic is likely to get a three-match ban for his loss of control, grappling with the Everton substitute James McCarthy as the two sets of players embarked in some push and shove following the challenge from Gareth Barry that ended his night a few minutes early with a second yellow card. Referee Jon Moss showed yellows to three other players for that melee but the most important detail is what followed as Willian’s shot took a deflection off Steven Naismith to find the bottom corner and preserve a seven-point advantage over Manchester City.
The relief was considerable because Chelsea might have been behind at that stage but for a remarkable save from Petr Cech to prevent Romelu Lukaku scoring against his former club midway through the second half. Everton had defended diligently and for long spells it looked like become a frustrating night for Chelsea’s attack in the absence of the suspended Diego Costa.
Costa will presumably go straight back into the team when Chelsea resume their foreign excursions against Paris St-Germain on Tuesday and there were times when the leaders undoubtedly missed their most prolific forward. There were plenty of chances for Mourinho’s men inside the opening exchanges but the arrowhead of their attack always seems that little bit sharper when Costa is harassing opponents.
Nemanja Matic was superb, as has generally been the case this season, and Juan Cuadrado slipped in seamlessly on his first full start, interchanging positions with Willian and full of quick, direct running. Matic and Willian both created early chances for themselves that flashed just over the crossbar. Cuadrado sent a diagonal shot wide of the post and Loic Remy did the same shortly afterwards from a similar position. Yet Chelsea’s attackers could not supply the decisive finish and having withstood some prolonged pressure, Everton were encouraged to start venturing forward with greater frequency, gaining in confidence and turning it into an even contest towards the end of the first half.
Mourinho will reflect that it might have been a much more straightforward night if Moss had seen Steven Naismith use an arm to lever the ball away from Cuadrado as they challenged one another inside the penalty area with only four minutes gone. By now, we all know Mourinho’s issue with the Premier League’s referees and what he perceives to be a “campaign” against the club. He goes too far, undoubtedly, but this was one of the more justifiable grievances to go into his increasingly thick file of complaints.
Reprieved, Everton actually had the most inviting chance of the half when Aaron Lennon and Ross Barkley combined to give Lukaku a sight of Cech in the Chelsea goal. Mourinho had left out Thibaut Courtois after the first lapses of his Chelsea career, incorporating a costly mistake against Manchester City and a couple of shaky moments, again from crosses, against Aston Villa at the weekend, but Cech is a goalkeeper of high achievement and kept out Lukaku’s effort with his legs.
That apart, Chelsea had enough possession in the opposition half to feel they should have done more to examine whether there was any rustiness affecting Tim Howard, returning to the Everton goal for the first time since St Stephen’s Day. Remy had been selected on the back of a maladroit performance from Didier Drogba at Villa Park and his involvement certainly meant Chelsea had a more fluid line of attack. Yet the home side could not keep up their early momentum. Willian and Cuadrado faded and by half-time Everton were starting to look comfortable.
Too often this season, Everton have been undermined by their own defending. Phil Jagielka played here more like the assured competitor of old and John Stones excelled alongside him, early in the second half producing one of the game’s outstanding moments with a sliding tackle on Remy. Stones not only dispossessed his man but carried it out with enough expertise, even at high speed, to keep the ball under control in the same movement. Higher up the pitch, there was also an assured performance from Ross Barkley.
Chelsea were, however, gathering momentum again. After the hour there was a burst of pressure that involved Howard making as many saves in the space of five minutes as he had done throughout the entire match to that point.
Cech was much less occupied but it was a brilliant reflex save to turn Lukaku’s close-range shot over the bar after Bryan Oviedo’s low cross had picked him out. Lukaku will feel he ought to have scored but Cech deserved all the acclaim before the drama of the finale.