An injury-time free-kick from Frank Lampard, helped into the net by Tim Howard, gave Chelsea what could prove to be an absolutely priceless 1-0 victory over Everton at Stamford Bridge. The contest appeared to be heading toward what would have, in truth, been a just share of the points, before Lampard’s in-swinging set-piece in the third minute of injury time saw John Terry make a desperate lunge for the ball, but it ultimately got into the net off of the left hand of the Everton goalkeeper.
While Howard made a couple of fine stops early in the second half, it was a far from convincing Chelsea performance. Yet, once again under Jose Mourinho, with their defense holding firm, they were able to grind out a win. The victory takes them four points clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table, with their title rivals still to play this weekend.
In contrast, the defeat will be another bitter pill for Everton to swallow. It was a contest that bore a large similarity with their last league outing at Tottenham. As then, Everton had the better of the opening half, but with on-loan Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku again unavailable, they lacked a cutting edge to make their superiority count on the score-sheet.
Chelsea, who improved after the break, also lacked a true goal-scoring threat in the final third. Still, they somehow found a way to get the win. There are still clearly flaws in this Chelsea side, yet as their players ran off in jubilation to celebrate their late goal, it had the feel of a win that may well be looked back on in May as a decisive moment in the title race.
After an initial decent spell for Chelsea, it was Everton who had by far the better of the opening 25 minutes. The visitors played far more like a team, as their superior possession enabled them to build attacks and get their full-backs forward. While committing men to the attack, Everton were also extremely diligent in preventing Chelsea’s famed counters, namely through the discipline and awareness of their midfield duo Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.
All that was missing was the ruthless steak up front to make that superiority count. Kevin Mirallas, supporting lone striker Steven Naismith from the right, had a couple of chances on the edge of the box with which on both occasions he failed to make clean contact with. Everton did call Petr Cech into action early on when Leon Osman fizzed a strike at goal and the Chelsea stopper had to stretch to turn over the crossbar.
Chelsea eventually began establishing themselves in the match, with their less hasty possession allowing them to get better support forward. They created a clear opening before the half-time interval, too. The home side overloaded the right side of the box, with first Willian and then Eden Hazard before the ball broke to Samuel Eto’o, whose left-footed show lacked menace and Tim Howard blocked away.
With Ramires replacing the quiet Oscar, Chelsea began the second half with much more intensity and purpose. Indeed, Howard had to be keenly alert to keep the scores level in the opening minutes. Lampard had two quick-fire chances after a reverse ball from Hazard but his initial left-footed shot was again straight at Everton’s American keeper, before the commanding Sylvain Distin closed down the attempted follow-up effort.
Howard was even more impressive minutes later. Hazard cut in from the right and hit a low left-footed shot that Howard did well to repel as it went through a host of bodies, before getting up swiftly to block Branislav Ivanovic’s fiercely struck shot form close-range with his chest.
With Everton slowing Chelsea’s momentum, Mourinho tried to improve his side’s attacking options by bringing on Fernando Torres and Andre Schurrle. The changes failed to have their desired effect. Torres again contributed little, while misfiring wildly with a shot from the edge of the box, and Schurrle struck an ambitious volley high over the bar.
Roberto Martinez was far from conservative in his own substitutions and perhaps sensed opportunities would present themselves for his side on the break. However, one of those brought on, Ross Barkley, on more than one occasion sloppily gave the ball away to bring renewed pressure to his side’s defense.
And eventually they cracked. Lampard’s delivery was excellent, and with Terry’s run going untracked and Howard caught too slow to come out, Chelsea secured a win that will likely be greeted even more warmly due to the unlikely fashion in which it was secured.