Two second-half goals brought Christmas cheer to Stamford Bridge with the Blues closing the gap on second-place Manchester United.
After a forgettable first half of this Boxing Day game, Alvaro Morata broke the deadlock and reached double figures for Premier League goals with a typical header from a typical supply line – his compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta. Marcos Alonso netted his fifth of the season with a set-piece header on the hour which allied with a third league clean sheet in a row, ensured a deserved three points following a bright showing after the interval.
Antonio Conte was able to recall Morata with the striker having served a suspension in the last game, but there was one change forced upon him with Andreas Christensen ruled out of this match due to illness. Gary Cahill was the player slotting into the middle of the defence and Cesc Fabregas was added to the midfield as the shape reverted to 3-5-2, with Willian and Pedro back on the bench.
Following the frustrations of the 0-0 draw at Everton and facing a side with a reputation for defensive fortitude, the pressure was on Chelsea to find the opening goal to draw our opponents out. It was the returning Morata who forced the first save of the game although it was from such a tight angle it was always unlikely to beat Mat Ryan in the Brighton goal. Hazard also had a shot inside the opening 10 minutes but sliced it wide.
Brighton were looking well-organised, and the Blues were experiencing similar frustrations to Saturday’s game on Merseyside, as our quick exchanges of passes on the edge of the opposition area were not bearing fruit.
The visitors rarely threatened in the first half although it took some muscular defending from Toni Rudiger to prevent lone striker Tamer Hemed from getting on the end of a long ball that was falling dangerously into our box.
At the other end on 18 minutes, Tiemoue Bakayoko had the chance to open the scoring when Rudiger headed down a Fabregas cross, but the ball arrived quickly at the French midfielder’s feet and his first-time shot went wide.
On 25 minutes, and after a prolonged period of playing the ball around in front of the massed Seagulls defence, Fabregas did pick out Victor Moses who had found space behind the defence but the wing-back shot straight at the keeper. A pass squared to Morata might have been the better option.
Rudiger tried to pick out a similar run from Fabregas a little later but the pass was out of the Spaniard’s reach. Clear-cut chances were proving hard to find.
It had been a long time since Brighton were in our penalty area although Cahill had reason to be grateful to N’Golo Kante for dispossessing Hemed in trademark style after a wayward header from the skipper.
With five minutes to go to the break, Fabregas struck one of the best shots of the half but despite a slight deflection it was pouched relatively comfortably by Ryan, as was Hazard’s strike into the six-yard box from out wide.
There was hope on the stroke of half-time that this season’s fruitful Azpi-Alvaro combination would produce the goods once again, but the centre-forward was closely marked by two defenders as the high ball came in, and his header went wide.
Less than a minute into the second half, the Seagulls were not so switched on and paid the price as Azpilicueta curved another ball over the top of the opposition defence. This time Morata had gained a yard on Lewis Dunk and although Ryan got a hand to the header, there was no keeping it out. One-nil Chelsea and just the start to the second half we desperately needed. It was Azpilicueta's sixth Premier League assist for Morata.
The shift up in gear in the Blues’ play was emphasised moments after that opener when Bakayoko controlled a long ball forward and laid it off to Hazard for a low shot wide.
Alonso was denied twice in a minute by Ryan, the first time from one of his free-kicks, awarded for a hack at the shins of Morata by Dale Stephens who was punished with the game’s only booking. Then the Australian tipped over Alonso’s header from the corner that followed.
He would not have the same success soon after when Fabregas delivered a near-post corner from the other side. It was Alonso again who met it and he guided the ball into the far side of the net.
It had taken an hour to establish a two-goal lead, and it could have become 3-0 five minutes later after Kante and Hazard sprung a lightning counter-attack, but Dunk had raced back and cleared superbly off his line.
In stark contrast to the first half, Chelsea were now stretching the Seagulls defence and Bakayoko missed the target after a Hazard dribble had pulled them out of shape. The Belgian was given a well-earned rest with just under 20 minutes to go when Willian was introduced. Brighton brought on Pascal Gross for Beram Kayal who had just had one of their best efforts at goal of the game.
Kante was not far away from hitting the target with a long-range drive as the game reached its conclusion, but Brighton could have spoiled our shut-out before the end when substitute Glenn Murray almost converted a cross at the far post, and then when Shane Duffy was left free to head over the crossbar.
Instead this first Premier League meeting with the team from Sussex ended with a two-goal cushion and our third clean sheet in a row in the league. With Man United drawing at home to Burnley, we are now a point behind the Red Devils.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Courtois; Azpilicueta, Cahill (c), Rudiger; Moses, Kante (Drinkwater 85), Fabregas, Bakayoko, Alonso; Hazard (Willian 73), Morata (Batshuayi 82).
Unused subs Caballero, Zappacosta, Ampadu, Pedro.
Scorers Morata 46, Alonso 60.
Brighton (4-4-1-1): Ryan; Schelotto, Duffy, Dunk (c), Suttner; March (Knockaert 82), Stephens, Propper, Izquierdo; Kayal (Gross 73); Hemed (Murray 80).
Unused subs Krul, Bruno, Baldock, Goldson.
Booked Stephens 57
Referee Mike Dean