An Eden Hazard-inspired Blues put recent away league defeats behind us with a Sunday lunchtime victory in Sussex.
The contest looked pretty much decided by a first half in which the team, once again playing without an orthodox centre-forward, scored twice without reply. The first goal was from Pedro, made by a wonderful Hazard pass, with the Belgian, who enjoys his matches on the South Coast, netting himself for the second, a breakaway goal and Hazard’s first since our win at Southampton back in October.
However the victory ended up being less comfortable than the opening half performance levels suggested it would be because, not long after Chelsea had struck the woodwork in the second half, the Seagulls cut the deficit with a Solly March goal.
That took some of the wind out of our sails and lifted the home team and their fans, but fortunately we reached full-time with only one further scare, when Brighton were angered that Marcos Alonso was only shown a yellow card for a foul on March outside our penalty area.
Having named a much-changed side on Thursday in Europe, Sarri reverted to the line-up which had vanquished Manchester City last weekend. Before the game he revealed he was testing it to see if it was a viable solution in what he anticipated would a different style of game with less space available compared with last Saturday, and what followed showed him it is capable of winning games like today’s.
A David Luiz free-kick was the first effort on goal, five minutes in, but he could not match the set-piece success for his team-mates three days earlier in Hungary. He shot straight at Maty Ryan in the Brighton goal.
Kepa was called upon to punch away a cross as the home team went forward after that, but it was a pretty ragged start from both sides.
Alonso, playing in a Chelsea shirt for the 100th time, had a shot blocked and it looked like it was going to be hard to find a way through the numbers Brighton were keeping back. But then, on 17 minutes, came a moment of incisive play by Hazard. He too had a go at goal but also saw the ball rebound off an opposing player. It came back his way and in a dash he took it wide of the Brighton defence before picking out Pedro’s far-post run perfectly. Onside and only a couple of yards out, the Spaniard hit the net for his sixth goal of the season and his first away since the opening day.
Kepa saved a long-range shot from Solly March half-an-hour in after Mateo Kovacic had given the ball away in midfield, a similar mistake to the one which led to Chelsea’s second goal three minutes later. Centre-back Leon Balogun was the guilty party for the Seagulls when he only succeeded in finding Willian with a pass out from the back. Quick-thinking from the Brazilian meant Hazard was suddenly clean through on goal and he made it 2-0 with a tidy, low finish.
Toni Rudiger would have scored our third before the interval had his towering header from a corner been a yard more to the right and not long after the restart, Hazard could not apply the finishing touch to a threatening Azpilicueta delivery.
Brighton, who started the day in 12th, were making mistakes, and it was another wayward pass, this time from Jack Stephens, which led to the attack that ended with Alonso rattling the post with a strike from 20 yards out which was worthy of a goal.
Not long after Brighton pulled their goal back. A cross came over from their right which was headed down by substitute Florin Andone. March reacted quickest to turn the ball in from six yards out.
There were 86 minutes on the clock when an Alonso tug on March resulted in a booking and a free-kick 25 yards out. The fouled player took it and skied it over the bar. Three points were ours and with Arsenal losing futher up the coast at Southampton, space opens up between us and the Gunners.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, David Luiz, Alonso; Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic (Barkley 75), Pedro (Loftus-Cheek 66), Hazard (Giroud 83), Willian.
Unused subs Caballero, Emerson, Christensen, Fabregas.
Scorers Pedro 17, Hazard 33
Booked Alonso 86, Kepa 90
Brighton (4-4-1-1): Ryan; Montoya, Balogun, Dunk (c), Bernardo; Knockaert (Locadia 83), Stephens, Propper, March; Gross (Bissouma 80), Murray (Andone 60).
Unused subs Steele, Bruno, Bong, Kayal.
Scorer March 66
Booked Dunk 55, Andone 66
Referee Stuart Atwell