Second-half goals from Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso took Chelsea to within a point of United, who drew at home to Burnley, with a highly winnable home game to come against Stoke at the Bridge on Saturday; and it was enough for the chants of “Antonio, Antonio” to ring out again.
Chelsea supporters should be happy after the remarkable achievements of last season — allied to this campaign’s comfortable progress in the Champions league — and yet the mood in west London has been muted for weeks. Partly because of the form of runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City and partly because of the team’s frustrating inconsistency.
This welcome result came on the back of a poor goalless draw at Everton and, with memories of an away defeat at West Ham also festering in the background, a goalless first half left the natives nervous.
They needn’t have worried, but the question Chelsea have been wrestling with is whether they have made any progress since the impressive title win last season, or even whether they have been able to keep up those standards. Not just because of the form of City — which has upped the ante for everyone — but also because of their own puzzling lack of team cohesion, seven months after lifting the Premier League trophy in such style and with such unity.
Whether those problems can be traced back to manager Antonio Conte’s rift with former star striker Diego Costa, or to a lack of backing in the transfer market, or to some other dressing room problem, is hard to tell. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Chelsea, despite being a good team, are no longer a great one.
Statistics tell part of the story. After their 20th fixture of the campaign last season Chelsea were top of the table, five points clear of Liverpool on 49 points having only just ended a long run of victories by losing at Tottenham. This year, after this result, they have reached the same stage with 42 points — 13 points behind the leaders, who have a game in hand.
Conte said: “This season is different to last season. Last season a lot of times we won games and were a bit lucky - like against West Brom here, Sunderland. This season sometimes we could have more luck.
“We have great respect for Manchester City because they are doing an extraordinary thing. But we are in a good moment of form and must just continue this way.”
Conte’s squad, which some feel is not big enough for a title defence, was tested here because with Andreas Christensen ill, Antonio Rudiger had to be drafted in at the back in the absence of injured David Luiz. The return of striker Morata, so badly missed at Goodison, proved to be a more important factor, however, as they eventually eased to three points.
Conte said: “Morata is our number nine and is important. Today he played a good game with and without the ball, his commitment was great. But I’m happy with the commitment of all my players.”
For Brighton, coming to London on the back of a vital home win over Watford, Chris Hughton made four changes by selecting Republic star Shane Duffy after suspension, full-back Ezequiel Schelotto, midfielder Beram Kayal, and winger Jose Izquierdo — with a clear intention to defend and contain.
In a tentative first half in which Brighton successfully did exactly that, Chelsea missed the best chance when Fabregas’ cross was headed back to Tiemoue Bakayoko by Rudiger, only for the defender to skew wide from 4m out.
The problem with a defensive strategy such as Brighton’s, however, is that it only takes a short lapse in concentration for it to fail; and that is exactly what happened inside a minute of the second half.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s angled ball into the box left the visiting defence bewildered and Morata appeared to deliver another textbook header, his 12th goal in all competitions for Chelsea this season.
Goalkeeper Matt Ryan saved well from a Marcos Alonso free-kick before the same player headed home from a corner on the hour mark for 2-0.
Hazard later had an effort cleared off the line but as Brighton struggled to create anything meaningful there was no need to expend too much energy.
Hughton said: “We need to figure a way of getting the goals we need. What we will do is work as hard as we can in January to strengthen the squad.”
It wasn’t a result which changed much. Brighton look strong candidates to stay up despite defeat and Chelsea’s hopes of title success are no less remote for victory. But another three points against Stoke on Saturday could yet see Conte’s men emerge, above United, as the most likely team to at least give Manchester City a run for their money in 2018.
Considering the new year begins with a trip to Arsenal on January 3, the champions still need to find another gear.
Courtois 6, Rudiger 6, Cahill 6, Azpilicueta 7; Alonso 7, Bakayoko 6, Fabregas 7, Kante 6 (Drinkwater 85), Moses 7; Hazard 8 (Willian 73; 6), Morata 7 (Batshuayi 82). Subs not used: Caballero, Pedro, Zappacosta, Willian, Batshuayi, Ampadu.
Ryan 7, Suttner 6, Dunk 7, Duffy 6, Schellotto 7; Propper 6, Stephens 6; Izquierdo 5, March 6 (Knockaert 82), Kayal 6 (Gross 73; 6); Hemed 5 (Murray 80; 6). Subs not used: Krul, Bruno, Baldock, Goldson.