Eden Hazard’s late equaliser brought Chelsea a point against Wolves on what threatened to be one of those frustrating afternoons at Stamford Bridge.
The Blues dominated possession on a blustery afternoon but could not translate that into clear-cut chances and goals, requiring a moment of magic from Hazard in the second minute of injury-time to grab a point after Raul Jimenez had put Wolves in front early in the second half.
The draw does little for our top four aspirations but we showed character in avoiding defeat against a well-organised team that had taken their only chance to score.
The Blues had been below par in the final third but had done enough to at least claim a point, with Gonzalo Higuain, Pedro and substitute Willian all putting visiting goalkeeper Rui Patricio to work.
Maurizio Sarri had started with his strongest available side having opted to rest a number of his key players in Thursday’s Europa League win over Dynamo Kiev. Back came captain Cesar Azpilicueta, Toni Rudiger, Emerson, N’Golo Kante, Gonzalo Higuain and Hazard with David Luiz and Mateo Kovacic the only two players in the 11 who did not start in last weekend’s hard-fought win at Fulham.
Wolves began with three centre-backs, reverting to five at the back when defending, with a clear game plan designed to nullify Chelsea’s superior attacking threat. It was a ploy that had already seen them beat the Blues 2-1 back in December, also taking points from Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United this season, with Liverpool beaten in the FA Cup.
It has made for an impressive first season back in the Premier League, but their recent form has been a little patchy and they had not kept a clean sheet away from home in the league since early October.
It took 10 minutes of patience before Chelsea’s first sight of goal, which followed good work between Jorginho, Pedro and Hazard. They made space for Higuain to shoot from just outside the area but his effort was deflected behind for a corner, which the visitors cleared despite a strong wind swirling around Stamford Bridge.
Four minutes later Jorginho found another gap in the Wolves backline, lifting the ball into space inside the area but Pedro uncharacteristically snatched at the dropping ball. Kante then slipped Higuain in through the same gap between Conor Coady and Willy Boly, and although the angle was tight, the Argentine still hit the target, forcing Rui Patricio into a near-post save to keep the game goalless.
That was to be the only shot on target in a cagey first half, but the Blues continued to probe. A combination of Coady and Roman Saiss prevented Higuain from a clear header at goal from Apilicueta’s cross, and from the resulting corner we could have had a penalty when Raul Jimenez misjudged the bounce of the ball, clumsily kicking it up onto his own raised arm. Referee Michael Oliver waved play on.
The Blues had been frustrated in the first half but had done enough to suggest we could find a breakthrough after the break.
A first chance to do so came five minutes into the second half. Hazard had skilfully exchanged passes with Higuain and was in full flow on the edge of the box before being tugged to the floor by Matt Doherty, who had already been booked. No second card was shown and from the free-kick, David Luiz could only force a corner as he saw his powerful drive deflected away and behind by the wall.
To this point, Wolves had operated with 11 men behind the ball with little attacking intent, their rare counter-attacks quickly snuffed out by the Blues defence.
In the 56th minute though, the visitors were presented with their chance and they duly took it. A Chelsea attack broke down on the edge of the area and Wolves broke, Diogo Jota and Jimenez exchanging passes before the latter burst into the area, and although Azpilicueta challenged, he could not prevent the ball going beyond Kepa Arrizabalaga and into the net.
It was a sucker punch and entirely against the run of play, exactly as the away side would have hoped for.
Sarri responded with a change he had already prepared – Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Mateo Kovacic on the left of midfield, with Callum Hudson-Odoi quickly on for Pedro shortly afterwards.
That second change came momentarily after Pedro had forced Rui Patricio to tip over the bar with a long-range drive, his second save in a couple of minutes having just pushed Higuain’s low effort past the post. Chelsea were cranking up the pressure.
Willian replaced Jorginho for the final 20 minutes, with Hazard moving centrally behind Higuain. The Brazilian hit the wall with two free-kicks in quick succession as frustrations grew and the visitors looked increasingly comfortable.
It wasn’t until Willian cut in and curled towards goal four minutes from time that we gave Patricio much more to think about.
The closing stages brought a series of corners and aerial bombardment before arguably the game’s one true moment of class.
Faced with a sea of gold shirts, Hazard brought the ball under control on the left, cut across the edge of the box and found that yard of space he needed to bend the ball low into the far corner beyond the goalkeeper’s dive.
The Bridge erupted and sensed victory as we piled forward in the final two minutes. One corner was to follow but this time Wolves did hold firm and so we settle for a point.
Next up is the Europa League trip to Kiev before we meet Everton at Goodison Park in the Premier League next Sunday.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, David Luiz, Emerson; Kante, Jorginho (Willian 72), Kovacic (Loftus-Cheek 56); Pedro (Hudson-Odoi 61), Higuain, Hazard.
Unused subs Caballero, Christensen, Barkley, Giroud.
Scorers Hazard 90+2
Booked Rudiger 78
Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-5-1-1): Patricio; Saiss, Coady, Boly; Doherty, Dendoncker, Neves, Moutinho, Jonny; Jota (Gibbs-White 82) ; Jimenez (Traore 89).
Unused subs Ruddy, Kilman, Vinagre, Cavaleiro, Costa.
Scorer Jimenez 56
Booked Doherty 37, Saiss 66, Boly 75, Jota 80
Referee Michael Oliver