Chelsea played the entirety of the second half with 10 men as they clung on to defeat Brighton 3-2 after a tense finale at Stamford Bridge.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side were already two up thanks to headers from Enzo Fernandez and Levi Colwill when Conor Gallagher was shown a second yellow card for fouling Billy Gilmour in stoppage time at the end of the first half.
Moments before Gallagher’s dismissal, Facundo Buonanotte had pulled Brighton back into it at 2-1 with swinging strike inside the post, and the stage looked set for a fightback by the visitors.
Instead, it was Chelsea that reasserted their charge, Fernandez converting from the spot midway through the second half after the excellent Mykhailo Mudryk had been fouled.
Joao Pedro came off the bench to head a goal back at the start of a lengthy period of added time, before Chelsea survived a penalty scare for a possible handball against Colwill with virtually the game’s final action.
This was a statement win from Pochettino’s team. Not only was it a first league victory in six attempts against Brighton, it came after their captain had been sent off after 45 minutes, and with arguably their best player this season,, Cole Palmer, starting the game on the bench, a knock sustained in training on Saturday meaning he was fit only to emerge once his team were 3-1 up.
The opening goal came after good work from Palmer’s replacement Mudryk, taking a high, looping pass down well with his chest and crossing cleverly to win a corner. From the resulting ball in, Benoit Badiashile showed balance and poise to take charge at the back post and hooked a ball into the six-yard box from which Fernandez rose to nod home his first Premier League goal.
Igor Julio needed to be alert with a sliding interception to prevent a certain goal for Nicolas Jackson, but after the defender had poked the ball behind for another corner Brighton were caught out again with a near identical routine.
This time it was Jackson keeping the move alive at the back post, arcing the ball back into middle and onto the head of Colwill, who despite a brave effort from Gilmour to hook the ball back from behind the line would not be denied his first Chelsea goal.
Mudryk looked as confident as he has been in Chelsea blue and nearly made it three before half-time, beating Joel Veltman on the turn with a dazzling first touch in midfield and driving at the heart of Brighton, only to see his fizzing 30-yard drive fly inches past the post.
Instead it was Brighton in whose favour the game turned before the break. First, the coolest of strikes from Buonanotte halved the arrears, the Argentinean lashing the ball inside the far post with his left foot after Simon Adingra and Adam Lallana had combined to pick him out.
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Then in stoppage time at the end of the half, a more serious setback for Pochettino, his captain Gallagher shown a second yellow card for sliding in late on Gilmour, and Chelsea would play the second 45 minutes with 10 men.
Brighton emerged determined to make their numerical advantage count. Adingra was a growing threat playing high on the left, most notably in the 55th minute when he crossed for Lallana who took a touch and hooked narrowly wide.
Roberto De Zerbi gambled, making four substitutions in one swoop, whilst Pochettino looked to his depleted bench and prepared Palmer.
Yet before Chelsea’s appointed penalty taker could take to the pitch, the brilliant Mudryk won a spot-kick, outpacing the recently arrived James Milner before being shouldered to the ground. A pitchside VAR check was required for referee Craig Pawson to make the call, and Fernandez showed his own credentials from 12 yards for 3-1.
Ten minutes of stoppage time had been announced by the time substitute Pedro rose to glance a header across goal and in at the far post to give Brighton hope.
Then at the death, Pawson was called pitchside once more to adjudicate on handball against Colwill.
The evidence seemed to show the ball strike the defender’s face, as Stamford Bridge breathed a sigh of collective relief.