Willian celebrates after scoring the winner for Chelsea against Everton. Reuters

Willian struck with less than two minutes remaining to break Everton’s fierce resistance and give Chelsea another precious three points in their quest for the Premier League title. Chelsea appeared set to be pulled back to within five points of Manchester City at the summit, before Willian met a Tim Howard punch out with a firm, precise drive through a crowd of bodies and back past the returning Everton goalkeeper. Seconds after the ball hit the back of the net, Willian was submerged by his teammates at the corner flag, with the jubilation evident at what could prove to be a critical moment in the race to be crowned champions.

The goal came just seconds after Gareth Barry had been handed a second yellow card and a red for a challenge on Willian, and after Branislav Ivanovic had perhaps been lucky to avoid a similar fate for an altercation with James McCarthy in the subsequent melee. It was a frenetic climax at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea having a goal ruled out only moments before when the officials had correctly spotted an offside Ivanovic deflecting in Nemanja Matic’s drive.

It was a contest that Chelsea controlled and in which Everton, as they did against Liverpool at the weekend put the focus on remaining tight at the back. And, despite a lively full debut for January signing Juan Cuadrado, Chelsea, missing leading scorer Diego Costa, were frustrated. Early on the Colombian fired just wide of the target and then set up Loic Remy to do likewise. Howard, too, after nine matches out with injury was an assured presence at the back for the visitors.

But Everton also had their chances. Indeed, if not for two standout saves form Petr Cech, the Premier League title race may have been blown wide open once again. The veteran fully justified his selection ahead of Thibaut Courtois by making a crucial intervention with his feet in each half to deny Romelu Lukaku. His save in the second period was quite outstanding, with Lukaku already certain he had scored when he connected with Bryan Oviedo’s cross just six yards from goal.

But for the second straight season, Roberto Martinez’s men were undone by a late, late goal. Unlike a year ago, Mourinho will be hoping that this time it is a result that pushes Chelsea toward lifting the trophy in May.