Chelsea maintained their seven point lead over Manchester City, but it was mighty close as Everton went within a whisker of getting a measure of revenge for their 6-3 thrashing back in August.
With the scores at 0-0 in the 88th minute, Chelsea looked like they were going to be frustrated and have their lead at the top cut by City’s 4-1 win at Stoke.
But a crazy few minutes left Everton with 10 men as Gareth Barry was sent off, Branislav Ivanovic appeared to butt James McCarthy during an 18-man melee, and most importantly for Jose Mourinho, Willian scored a last-minute winner to keep up the Blues’ title charge.
“We found a different Everton,” Mourinho said.
“A defensive Everton, very well organised and compact, very dangerous on the counter attack. They made it difficult for us.
“We tried everything and the spirit was amazing. The pressure was strong and they were in trouble for the last 10 minutes.
“We scored a goal which the linesman disallowed very well but everyone was inside their box for the last 10 or 15 minutes.
“In the end we got a very important goal. At the end the emotion was high.”
The dramatic finale was all very different from a tepid first-half that started brightly but fizzled out.
With Juan Cuadrado making his full debut, Chelsea started full of attacking intent, and when the Colombian winger started interchanging with Willian and Eden Hazard as they alternated routes from which to run at Everton’s defence, it looked like a turkey shoot was on the cards.
Hazard in particular was a constant threat, cutting in from the wing to shoot or set up team-mates, all the time drawing fouls from opponents.
Before kick-off, fouls on the little Belgian had been responsible for 17 players receiving yellow cards and Muhamed Besic became the 18th when he was booked for an early trip on Hazard, before eventually being replaced at half-time.
But it was still goallless at that stage, because for all Chelsea’s possession and intent, Tim Howard only had to make two saves in the first-half, one from Loic Remy’s header in the 13th minute and then a long shot from Hazard on the half-hour mark.
Too often they lacked a cutting edge, not surprising with the prolific Diego Costa sitting in the stands serving the last of his three game-ban.
Remy got into good positions twice but shot wide of the far post, as did Cuadrado in the early stages, and Branislav Ivanovic missed the best chance, blazing over the bar from 12 yards.
To spare the Serb’s embarrassment somewhat, the referee’s assistant raised a flag for offside.
Everton were on the backfoot most of the time but still managed to scare Chelsea on the break. Loan signing Aaaron Lennon set up Romelu Lukaku for a vicious swerving shot that Petr Cech did well to save with his feet in the eighth minute, and the big Belgian then cut in from the left but shot straight at the keeper.
Cech excelled himself in the 68th minute with an even better save from his former team-mate. Bryan Oviedo drilled a low cross into Chelsea’s penalty area, Lukaku diverted it towards goal from close range but Cech did superbly well to save with his left foot.
It was, Everton boss Roberto Martinez conceded, a costly miss.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t convert the chances,” he said.
“It’s a huge disappointment. Our performance deserved a positive result.”
Mourinho decided to shake things up with 20 minutes to go, sending on Didier Drogba for Remy and restoring Cesc Fabregas to midfield.
Roberto Martinez responded by sending on Darron Gibson and Kevin Mirallas, and the Belgian was soon in action, firing a long range shot just over the bar.
But still Chelsea pressed, and Howard was required to punch away a deep free-kick, shortly before it all kicked off in the final five minutes.
Perhaps Chelsea were aggrieved that they were refused a goal when Ivanovic was correctly given offside as he deflected the ball past Howard from Matic’s 25-yard shot in the 85th minute.
Moments later, as the ball was cleared and Willian went down under Barry’s challenge, Chelsea’s players surrounded referee Jon Moss, demanding a second yellow for the former England midfielder. A melee ensued, during which Ivanovic appeared to butt McCarthy. When it all calmed down, Moss duly showed Barry a yellow then a red card, and from the ensuing free-kick, Chelsea finally broke through.
Howard punched the kick away, Willian fired in a volley from 25 yards, and it took a deflection of the hapless Steven Naismith before flying past the keeper and into the net.
Chelsea had got their win, three points and kept their seven point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table.
CHELSEA (4-2-3-1): Cech 7 ; Ivanovic 6, Zouma 6, Terry 6, Azpilicueta 7; Ramires 6, Matic 7; Cuadrado 6, Willian 7, Hazard 8; Remy 6.
EVERTON (4-5-1): Howard 8; Coleman 6, Stones 7, Jagielka 7, Oviedo 7; Lennon 5, Besic 5, Barkley 6, Barry 6, Naismith 5; Lukaku 6.
Referee: Jonathan Moss.