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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

Chelsea have all to play for in final game against Cherries

Chelsea took a huge stride towards securing European qualification for next season, as the Blues continued their superb recent run with an excellent 2-1 victory away to Brighton & Hove Albion.

Goals in either half, the first from the club’s top scorer, Cole Palmer, and the second from the returning Christopher Nkunku, provided the platform for Chelsea’s fourth successive win in the Premier League.

Reece James’ red card a couple of minutes from the end of full-time made for a tense finish, but, despite Danny Welbeck pulling a goal back in stoppage time, the visitors held on for all three precious points.

It was enough for Chelsea to move up to sixth place in the table, overtaking Newcastle United - with the top six guaranteed a European spot, irrespective of the result of the FA Cup Final.

A draw at Stamford Bridge in Sunday’s last match of the season against Bournemouth will be sufficient now to confirm Chelsea’s involvement in at least the Europa Conference League for the 2024-25 campaign.

In spite of Brighton’s desperate late season form leaving them with nothing to play for - apart from finishing above Crystal Palace in their on-going rivalry - there was an absorbing competitive edge throughout the game.

Plenty of players have switched between the two clubs lately, with Tariq Lamptey and Billy Gilmour in Albion’s starting line-up this time, while Moises Caicedo and Marc Cucurella were in the Chelsea XI.

Inevitably, the latter pair had to bear the brunt of the local fans’ continuing unhappiness about the extensive poaching of their players and staff by the Blues, with ferocious booing of both Caicedo and Cucurella from the outset.

Caicedo did not exactly shy away from prominence on his return to the South Coast, with a new bleached blonde hairstyle making him stand out. Cucurella on his 50th Chelsea start was encouraged by the new song in his name from the away end.

And under clear blue skies on a perfect early summer evening, with Chelsea playing in their attractive second kit of “Pitch Blue and Soar Blue”, it was the left-back who looked to have made the initial breakthrough after a quarter of an hour.

Cucurella’s threatening run forward was stopped by a sliding Facundo Buonanotte tackle, which the referee Michael Salisbury deemed to be a foul and a penalty, only to be sent to the review screen by a VAR intervention.

Having looked at the video of the incident, the referee acknowledged that the Brighton player had won the ball, and cancelled the penalty award, disappointing Palmer, who was already waiting to take the spot kick.

It was just the first of a series of controversies illustrating the problems with current officiating in the Premier League, and especially the inconsistency in the very flawed use of VAR - on the day that Wolves formally proposed abolishing the system.

Not long after the opening goal, a dangerous dribble by Mykhailo Mudryk was ended by Lamptey with a flailing arm / elbow. It was ajudged to be unintentional, but the Ukrainian winger was unable to continue.

In time added on at the end of the first half, Nicolas Jackson produced a repeat of his far-post headed goal from a right wing cross in Chelsea’s previous match at Nottingham Forest, but this time it was disallowed.

The referee saw a push by Jackson on Lamptey just beforehand, and VAR eventually confirmed the on-field decision. However, there was another clash shortly after the interval which seemed to be completely missed by both Salisbury and VAR.

Chelsea may have got a significant stroke of fortune as Malo Gusto appeared to bring down Simon Adingra in the penalty area but nothing was given - to the anger afterwards of the Albion head coach, Roberto De Zerbi.

Conversely, the Brighton boss expressed his sympathy for the red card received by James for violent conduct, having kicked out at João Pedro, after being fouled by the Seagulls’ striker on the touchline in front of the technical areas.

It is less excusable from a Chelsea perspective, as it will bring James’ third suspension for ill-discipline this season, when he has made only 10 league appearances, including just five starts, with solely one match completed, mainly because of injuries.

The club captain will now be banned for four games for his second red card of 2023-24, after having picked one up for two yellow cards at Newcastle, as well as being suspended for abusing a referee following a defeat by Aston Villa at the Bridge when he was not even playing.

And again at Brighton James’ petulant reaction after the ball had gone was not spotted by either the referee or his assistant referee on that side. It was yet another match incident requiring a VAR intervention sending the referee to look at the review screen.

Minutes earlier it was the Chelsea fans who were crying out for a red card when Jackson went down as he was challenged by Bart Verbruggen, just outside the box but with only the Albion goalkeeper to beat.

Salisbury gave a free-kick and a yellow card to Verbruggen, who furiously but with inevitable futility demanded a VAR review as he was adamant that there had been no contact and it was Jackson who should have been booked for simulation.

Chelsea also got a little lucky with Brighton twice hitting the woodwork, notably right at the end of the first half from one of several Lamptey right wing crosses which were repeatedly the home side’s main attacking threat.

João Pedro’s header was only kept out by a combination of Djordje Petrović’s brilliant reflexes and the crossbar. Then similarly in second-half stoppage time Adingra’s shot came off the inside of the post and rebounded to safety.

It was a warning to the 10-man Blues which was not heeded as just three minutes later João Pedro turned provider with a low ball from the left for Welbeck to finish first-time at the near post.

Albion will regret that when the goal finally came it was too late for them to then find an equaliser. However, Chelsea unequivocally deserved the victory, not least as their better players were able to at times step up to a level above everyone else on the pitch.

That was most evident in Palmer and Nkunku’s fine finishing for the visitors’ two goals - which also owed a lot to exceptional crosses, from Cucurella on the left for Palmer, and from Gusto on the right for Nkunku.

In his Chelsea debut season, Palmer has remarkably now scored 25 goals, with 22 of them in the league, although the one at Brighton was only his second with a header, after his perfect hat-trick in the 6-0 win over Everton.

It is truly put into context by the fact that the total of 22 has already matched Frank Lampard’s best season in the Premier League, in 2009-10. Only Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Didier Drogba have ever scored more than Palmer in a Premier League season for Chelsea.

No wonder the away fans’ most audible chants all evening were in praise of their new hero, who in April became Chelsea’s first winner of the Premier League Player of the Month award since Eden Hazard in September 2018.

“Palmer again, olé, olé!” on repeat has been taken and developed from a song which originally became popular at Manchester City, fittingly perhaps very much like the player himself.

Nkunku’s assured first-time strike was almost equally satisfying, after he had begun on the bench along with James, as they both continue their extended rehabilitation from a sequence of frustrating injuries.

The two goals meant that Chelsea had a cushion when going a man down and having to switch from head coach Mauricio Pochettino’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a necessarily defence-focused 4-4-1.

It managed to keep their successful run going, which, according to a typical touch of humour from Poch, mimicking his chairman, Todd Boehly, is “now four games and a half winning, because the second half we already won in Aston Villa.”

Just as importantly, since early February, Chelsea have lost only once in the Premier League in 14 matches. Even though the exception was the embarassing 5-0 drubbing at Arsenal, the Blues’ subsequent recovery shows a growing resilience in the squad which is impressive.

Brighton and Hove Albion: (4-2-3-1) Verbruggen - Lamptey (Offiah 85), Webster, Dunk (Barco 46), Igor Julio - Gross, Gilmour (Baleba 70) - Buonanotte (Welbeck 70), Enciso (Ansu Fati 85), Adingra - João Pedro

Chelsea: (4-2-3-1) Petrović - Gusto (James 69), Chalobah, Badiashile, Cucurella - Caicedo, Gallagher (Ugochukwu 99) - Madueke (Sterling 69), Palmer (Casadei 99), Mudryk (Nkunku 42) - Jackson (Thiago Silva 90)

Attendance: 31,555


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