A stoppage-time equaliser from Danny Welbeck denied Chelsea the three points after Romelu Lukaku had given us a first-half lead on a frustrating night at Stamford Bridge.
The Belgian powerfully headed us in front on his first league start since 16 October, and for most of the contest it looked like that would be enough to secure a gritty victory against an enterprising Seagulls side.
We again lost two players to injury, this time Reece James and Andreas Christensen, and that didn’t help our cause as Brighton dominated proceedings either side of the interval. However, we appeared to have ridden the storm with a relatively comfortable final 20 minutes following the introduction of N’Golo Kante and a change of shape to bolster our midfield.
There was one final twist, however, as Welbeck rose highest in our box in the first of four additional minutes to plant an unstoppable header past the otherwise unbeatable Edouard Mendy with what was Brighton’s first-ever goal at the Bridge.
We rise above Liverpool into second place having played a game more than them before the two teams convene in SW6 on Sunday.
Lukaku’s inclusion from the off was one of four changes Thomas Tuchel made to his team 72 hours after the full-time whistle blew at Villa Park.
The other fresh faces were Mateo Kovacic, like Lukaku starting a league game for the first in over two months, Cesar Azpilicueta, making a landmark 450th club appearance, and Christensen, in for the injured Thiago Silva.
With Marcos Alonso one of those to make way, James lined up at left wing-back with Christian Pulisic on the opposite flank, where he finished the win at Villa.
Brighton made three changes of their own, one of which was Solly March in for the injured Leandro Trossard.
Lukaku was quickly in the thick of things, winning a flick-on that freed Mason Mount. Unfortunately, he could not do likewise with his attempted pass to Callum Hudson-Odoi.
The battle of current and former Chelsea right-backs started inside five minutes as James did well to get his body in front of Tariq Lamptey and win a foul when it looked for a moment like the 21-year-old might get in round the back.
The quick pace continued. Hudson-Odoi had our first shot in anger, a threatening one deflected away from goal, and then Lamptey sprinted infield and curled an effort harmlessly wide.
A brief period of calm ensued before we so nearly took the lead on the quarter-hour. Robert Sanchez in the Brighton goal did not adequately palm a corner away, with the ball eventually falling at Azpilicueta’s feet. The skipper turned and shot but the slightest touch from Sanchez diverted it against the foot of the post. When James returned the ball with interest, Toni Rudiger headed it straight at the grateful visiting keeper.
He was called into action again midway through the half, Mount the man denied after good link-up play between Kovacic and Lukaku. Before the corner could be taken, James limped off very slowly having suffered a knock when tackled. Alonso was the natural replacement, even if it ended any hope Tuchel had of giving him the night off.
Disappointment immediately turned to delight. Mount swung the corner he had earned over and there was Lukaku to thump a header past Sanchez having shaken off Neal Maupay. The French forward went down holding his face but there was nothing in it, and the goal rightly stood.
It needed Mendy to preserve that advantage shortly afterwards, parrying Adam Lallana’s strike to safety after we made a meal of clearing the ball. The Seagulls’ sharp movement between the lines had caused us problems all evening, with Christensen in particular making a couple of crucial interceptions. That would have been on Tuchel’s mind as the teams headed down the tunnel.
Blues on the back foot
Christensen did not emerge back out of it for the second half. He had needed treatment and played on, but joined James on the treatment table. Trevoh Chalobah was the Dane’s replacement.
Brighton started the half as they finished the first: on the front foot. A Lallana cross was flicked narrowly over Mendy’s crossbar by Jakub Moder, a clearance from our keeper against Maupay had Chelsea hearts in mouths before Kovacic hacked away, and then the Senegalese kept out long-range efforts from first Alexis Mac Allister and then Bissouma.
So when a golden opportunity to double our lead 10 minutes into the second period wasn’t taken, it felt extra frustrating. More good hold-up play from Lukaku enabled Hudson-Odoi to race away with Mount for company, and a solitary defender between them. Hudson-Odoi opted to pass rather than shoot, which allowed Joel Veltman to stick out a leg and intercept. The frustration was compounded when Pulisic was tripped by Veltman in the box but no penalty was given.
On the hour we had our narrowest escape yet. Mac Allister got the wrong side of Chalobah but Mendy did well to dive at his feet, forcing him wide. He quickly found Maupay, though, who saw his shot blocked by Rudiger.
There were further moments of concern - Maupay firing wide and Lallana over - before Tuchel called for Kante. Hudson-Odoi made way, and we switched to 3-5-2 to try and shore things up.
From set-pieces wide right, Rudiger headed into a dangerous area but not as far as Lukaku, and Chalobah nodded straight at Sanchez. But at least there was some calm and controlled possession after a good 20 minutes without much of either.
Agony at the end
In search of a second that would end the contest, Kovacic fed Lukaku who was thwarted by Veltman as he cut inside, and Kante had an effort deflected wide with the 90-minute mark approaching. Mount had the ball in the net from range but the referee adjudged him to have fouled Veltman.
Then came the heartbreaker in the first 60 seconds of time added on. Marc Cucurella swung a cross over from the left and Welbeck rose highest to head a pinpoint header into the corner of the Shed End net.
2022 starts with the visit of Liverpool on Sunday and then the first leg of our Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham, also at the Bridge.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen (Chalobah h/t), Rudiger; James (Alonso 27), Jorginho, Kovacic, Pulisic; Mount, Lukaku, Hudson-Odoi (Kante 67).Unused subs Kepa, Sarr, Saul, Barkley, Havertz, ZiyechScorer Lukaku 28Booked Rudiger 40, Kovacic 58, Hudson-Odoi 64, Mount 81
Brighton (3-4-3): Sanchez; Veltman, Burn, Cucarella; Lamptey (Mwepu 66), Lallana (c), Bissouma, March; Moder (Alzate 88); Maupay, Mac Allister (Welbeck 80).Unused subs Steele, Webster, Gross, Duffy, Richards, Ferguson.Scorer Welbeck 90+1Booked Bissouma 81
Referee Mike DeanCrowd 40,088