Brighton’s Welbeck stuns Chelsea as Tuchel labels title chances as ‘stupid’
As Danny Welbeck’s beautiful header sailed beyond Édouard Mendy, it was difficult not to feel that we were witnessing the end of Chelsea’s title challenge. The gap to Manchester City stands at an imposing eight points and there was something resigned about the way Thomas Tuchel turned on his heels when Welbeck equalised for Brighton, who would have been the victims of a gross injustice had they left Stamford Bridge with nothing to show for a splendid performance.
Unable to build on Romelu Lukaku’s first-half header, Chelsea could have few complaints after slumping to their third draw in their past four league games.
Admittedly Tuchel tried to foster a siege mentality afterwards, raging at being forced to play on through a Covid crisis, but the truth is that his side did not do enough. The numbers favoured Brighton, who had more shots and more possession, and the only disappointment for Graham Potter was that his skilful visitors left it so late before equalising.
Brighton absolutely battered Chelsea in the second half. Yves Bissouma dominated Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in central midfield and Tuchel did not look surprised when Welbeck, introduced with 10 minutes to go, headed Marc Cucurella’s cross into the top corner. “We knew this was going to be a tough match,” Tuchel said. “I have not seen one team play a nice match against Brighton.”
That was as far as the compliments went from Chelsea’s manager. Tuchel branded Mike Dean’s refusal to award Christian Pulisic a penalty in the second half “a joke” and he hit out at the referee for blowing for a foul before a shot from Mason Mount had crossed the line at 1-0. “The ball is going into the net,” Tuchel said. “We have VAR – why can we not wait? If he decides then it is a foul then decide it but why is he so sure? Does he want to keep the tension up?”
On Tuchel went, complaining about the lack of player welfare when asked if Chelsea have any hope of cutting City’s lead. “How should we compete in a title race? It would be stupid. I simply don’t know what I can expect from my players. Nobody knows it.”
Tuchel pointed out that Chelsea have had seven players out with Covid-19. He reported that Timo Werner is still in bad shape after testing positive a fortnight ago and the European champions will feel even more downbeat when they look at their injury list. Ben Chilwell is already a long-term absentee and they could be without Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva and Reece James when they host Liverpool on Sunday.
At least there was more confidence to Chelsea in attack after their win at Aston Villa. Fit and firing at last, Lukaku was in the mood after scoring on Boxing Day. This was the striker’s first start in the league since mid-October and Chelsea were intent on playing off him, the presence of a target man encouraging Mount to keep making dangerous runs.
Tuchel has been looking for those connections in attack. The signs were promising when Mount and Lukaku linked up. One combination led to Robert Sánchez saving from Mount, who created the opener when Lukaku charged on to the midfielder’s corner and met it with an unstoppable header.
The goal came at a good time for Chelsea, who had just lost James to a hamstring injury. César Azpilicueta had struck a post after Sánchez flapped at a corner, but the hosts did not have it all their own way.
Their defence was nervy without Silva and Brighton were quick to target Chelsea’s wing-backs, with Pulisic unconvincing on the right and James given a torrid time by Tariq Lamptey before making way for Marcos Alonso.
James, who left the ground on crutches, had not looked like an ideal stand-in for Chilwell on the left. He is right-footed and Lamptey kept darting past the England defender. Chelsea did not seem to know how to handle their former player.
They were edgy as half-time approached. Mendy saved from Adam Lallana and Antonio Rüdiger was fortunate not to be sent off for a wild challenge on Lamptey. Brighton had taken control and Chelsea, whose injury problems increased when Christensen was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah, spent the second half living dangerously.
There were chances for Jakub Moder, Neal Maupay and Bissouma, while Alexis Mac Allister kept wriggling into space. Chelsea had grown ragged, only restoring a semblance of order when N’Golo Kanté replaced the ineffective Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Yet Brighton, who felt that Lukaku’s goal should have been disallowed for a foul on Maupay, would not be denied. The game had just gone into stoppage time when Cucurella crossed and Welbeck, rising between Chalobah and Rüdiger, sent a brilliant header past Mendy. It is City’s title to lose.