Second-half goals from Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso gave Chelsea and 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion and moved the reigning Premier League champions to within a point of second-placed Manchester United.
Antonio Conte’s men drew a frustrating blank in a goalless draw at Everton last time out and endured more frustration as Brighton defended impeccably during an uneventful opening 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day.
It took a familiar combination to break the game open as Morata headed home from Cesar Azpilicueta’s pinpoint cross 51 seconds after the restart – the sixth time the full-back has set up his Spain colleague in the Premier League this season.
Morata is now on to 10 for the campaign in the top flight and another of his compatriots, Marcos Alonso, made the points safe with his fifth as the hour arrived.
Chelsea have now won nine of their last 12 Premier League games and are on 42 points – just one behind United, who salvaged a 2-2 draw at home to Burnley, with runaway leaders Manchester City 13 points better off with a game in hand against Newcastle United on Wednesday.
6 – Cesar Azpilicueta has assisted Alvaro Morata for six Premier League goals this season – the joint-most for one @ChelseaFC player to another in a single season (Fabregas-Costa 14-15 and Lampard-Drogba 09-10). Amigos.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2017
Morata was back from suspension to lead a Chelsea attack that had struggled against Everton and the Spain striker skilfully twisted clear of Shane Duffy to draw an early save from Mat Ryan.
Conte’s men should have been ahead in the 19th minute when Cesc Fabregas crossed from the right after a corner was worked short.
Antonio Rudiger propelled himself towards the ball at the back post and knockdown fell towards Tiemoue Bakayoko, but the midfielder could not adjust his feet in time and prodded tamely wide with the goal at his mercy.
Fabregas was at the heart of much of Chelsea’s better work and his excellent chipped pass picked out a darting run from Victor Moses in the 26th minute, when the wing-back did not make clean contact and Ryan beat down the shot at his near post.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 26, 2017
The Australia international had few other causes for alarm until the interval as a disciplined defensive unit protected him impressively and Morata headed high and wide under pressure in first-half stoppage time.
If Chelsea were prepared for more toil in the second period, Azpilicueta and Morata combined almost immediately after the restart to offer timely relief to their team-mates – Brighton’s error coming in allowing the defender too long on the ball, with the resulting cross and header expertly executed.
The home side and the Stamford Bridge crowd were suddenly buoyant and Eden Hazard almost made it two when he fizzed a shot narrowly wide.
Ryan made two fine saves in quick succession, scrambling across his goal line to touch a trademark Alonso free-kick behind in the 58th minute before denying the same player from the resulting right-wing corner.
But those efforts proved soon proved in vain when Alonso met Fabregas’ in-swinging delivery from the opposite flank to glance into the far corner.
Brighton almost made the most of a rare venture forward when Gary Cahill deflected Tomer Hemed’s header from Solly March’s cross behind but they were exposed when Chelsea broke from the corner that followed.
N’Golo Kante led a charge that ended with Lewis Dunk brilliantly clearing Hazard’s shot off the line.
Belgium playmaker Hazard was really starting to enjoy himself and a dazzling run past a host of defenders and beyond Ryan deserved better than Bakayoko shooting wide from the cutback.
Beram Kayal fired over on the turn for Albion before Hazard departed to a standing ovation.
Veteran striker Glenn Murray came on to force a back-post save from Thibaut Courtois as Brighton, who lie 12th and four points above the relegation zone, were able to end the contest with the poise they showed at the beginning.
Key Opta stats:
– Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 13 Premier League games played on Boxing Day (W8 D5), since a 2-4 loss at Charlton in 2003.
– No team in Europe’s big five leagues has seen more league goals scored by Spanish players this season than Chelsea (20, level with Real Sociedad).
– Brighton have lost four consecutive away league games without scoring a single goal for the first time since October 2002.
– Chelsea have scored 12 headed goals in the Premier League this season, more than any other side.
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