Chelsea toiled for 70 minutes before Mason Mount fired in a breakthrough goal at Stamford Bridge, though the concession of an equaliser moments later saw us drop home league points for the third time in our last four matches.
Mount’s strike came after a long evening of pressure and possibilities, with Jordan Pickford responsible for keeping out the most dangerous of our openings on a night where Thomas Tuchel was without four key attacking options.
That didn’t seem to be harming our chances of getting three points when Mount finally beat his England international colleague, though Jarrad Branthwaite’s debut goal four minutes later was a dagger to our prospects and saw the Blues lose more ground at the top.
With four positive Covid-19 cases in the squad confirmed by Tuchel prior to kick-off, the Blues were depleted but only changed by two from the dramatic late win against Leeds United five days previously.
The German duo of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner dropped out, the latter one of those to have tested positive and the former also feeling unwell. Romelu Lukaku, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ben Chilwell were also absent with Covid-19.
That meant Christian Pulisic returned to spearhead the Chelsea attack, with Hakim Ziyech on the left and Mount on the right. The rest of the Blues team was unchanged as Ruben Loftus-Cheek continued to partner Jorginho in midfield and N’Golo Kante back on the bench.
Everton were also depleted and forced into four changes from their weekend defeat at Crystal Palace, meaning there were Premier League debuts for 20-year-old striker Ellis Simms and teenage defender Branthwaite.
Lively from the off
On a mild mid-December night in south-west London, the hosts settled far quicker than our Merseyside visitors, who were understandably low on confidence after one win in their past 10 league matches.
Half the crowd at Stamford Bridge thought the Blues had taken an early lead inside six minutes when Jorginho, scorer of two high-pressure penalties in the victory over Leeds, turned provider with an incisive pass to take a trio of Toffees defenders out of the equation.
Reece James was the beneficiary, advanced and drifting into a dangerous area on the edge of the box, but the England defender’s usually pinpoint accuracy deserted him as he slotted the ball wide of the near upright.
Probing without gains
James then teed up Mount for a low strike across the face of goal but also wide, an opening created by clever movement from Pulisic in the centre-forward position dragging opponents away.
Both sides were deprived of their usual attacking contingent but it was Tuchel’s men coping better with the absences and threatening an early breakthrough.
Ziyech was lively from the off and cleverly deceived Jonjoe Kenny with a neat turn before setting off in pursuit of goal, the Moroccan’s delivery turned goalwards with a delicious back-heel flick from Mount but into the gloves of the waiting Pickford.
Ziyech then forced the Everton keeper into a save of his own shortly afterwards as Mount took his turn to provide an inviting pass, before a flurry of Chelsea free-kicks failed to force the opener either as Pickford palmed James’s curler to safety before the same man fired a rasping strike over after Marcos Alonso had fired into the wall.
There was brief concern inside Stamford Bridge when Loftus-Cheek went to ground in a cry of pain around the 20-minute mark after falling awkwardly when contesting a mid-air header, though thankfully the heavyweight midfielder was soon back on his feet following a period of treatment from the Chelsea medics and back into the thick of the action.
Yet the Blues’ finishing in front of goal continued in the charitable fashion of the Christmas season with Ziyech blazing wildly into the Shed End before a slick attacking move was thwarted by some well-timed defending in the six-yard box.
In the latter stages of the half, Pickford produced his best moment of the game to date with a smart reaction save to keep out Mount following bright combination play between our number 19 and Toni Rudiger, who had advanced into the Everton box in open play in a sign of our growing dominance.
Yet the Toffees had two quick counter-attacks right before the interval to provide a reminder of their own ability to spring a surprise, the second of which resulted in their first shot on target of the match from Anthony Gordon, an effort from distance comfortably collected by Edouard Mendy.
More of the same
The Blues had enjoyed in excess of 80 per cent possession for much of the first period and a growing shot count, both themes that continued after the restart, though our frustrations also intensified in the face of Everton’s dogged resistance.
When the Merseysiders were breached at the back, Pickford was on hand as their last line of defence and was soon called upon to palm a long-range shot from Mount behind. From the resulting corner, swung in by Alonso, Loftus-Cheek’s looping header spun up and on to the roof of the net.
Set-pieces were proving a useful opportunity to crank up the pressure on the Toffees’ rearguard and a James free-kick just before the hour mark created danger in the box, though Pulisic mistimed his front-post header and Cesar Azpilicueta sliced over as our profligacy continued.
Mase on the money
Tuchel’s options from the bench were limited with so many absences and his double change after 65 minutes certainly caught many by surprise, with Saul and Ross Barkley introduced in a switch that saw Pulisic drop to wing-back and the Spanish sub deployed up front.
Within five minutes, that long-awaited Chelsea breakthrough had materialised and it was another goal conjured up from many years on the training pitches at Cobham.
James and Mount were the academy graduate combination this time, the midfielder for once starting the wider of the two and receiving a pass in the box. His first two touches set it up nicely and his third was a clever finish inside the near post, leaving Pickford for once without an answer.
It was the fourth consecutive league game in which Mount had netted for the Blues, his seventh of the campaign, but once again not the winner.
Toffees strike back
That was down to Everton’s resolve and our inability to hold on to the lead, with the equaliser conceded four minutes after Mount’s strike. An inswinging free-kick did the damage as Gordon delivered deep to the back post and debutant Branthwaite slid in to convert past Mendy.
The Toffees’ malaise was suddenly unstuck and their threat grew stronger in the final 15 minutes, with only Thiago Silva’s wily defending denying Lewis Dobbin the chance to cause more problems following a teasing left-sided cross from Gordon.
Down the other end, Pickford was at it again to keep out Thiago Silva’s powerful downward header from Barkley’s corner and then once more to pluck Rudiger’s effort out of the December air as the visitors counted the clock down while also pondering whether they dare dream of snatching all three points.
In the end, neither side could claim the win, though it was Everton and their supporters left celebrating an unexpected point and Tuchel left searching for answers to a growing list of issues.
A trip to Wolves on Sunday afternoon is next in the diary before a Carabao Cup quarter-final at Brentford next Wednesday.
Chelsea (3-4-3) Mendy; Azpilicueta (Chalobah 79), Thiago Silva, Rudiger; James, Loftus-Cheek (Barkley 65), Jorginho (c), Alonso (Saul 65); Ziyech, Pulisic, Mount
Unused subs Arrizabalaga, Bettinelli, Christensen, Sarr, Kante
Scorer Mount 70
Booked Loftus-Cheek 45; Jorginho 59
Everton (4-4-2) Pickford; Kenny, Keane (c), Holgate, Branthwaite, Godfrey; Doucoure, Gomes (Gbamin 70); Iwobi, Simms (Dobbin 62), Gordon (Onyango 90)
Unused subs Begovic, Lonergan, Coleman, Allan, Gbamin
Scorer Branthwaite 74
Booked Holgate 21; Gomes 64; Dobbin 77
Referee Michael Oliver