Chelsea’s Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard (L) rides a tackle by Brighton’s English midfielder Dale Stephens during the English Premier League football match between Brighton and Hove Albion and Chelsea at the American Express Community Stadium in Brighton, southern England on January 20, 2018. Glyn KIRK / AFP
A sublime performance from Eden Hazard solved Chelsea’s recent scoring problems in their first victory this year conjuring two goals in a 4-0 win away to Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.
Two goals in the opening six minutes at the Amex Stadium — Hazard’s opener followed by a Willian strike –- put the Blues in control, with Hazard adding the London side’s third goal in the 77th minute before Victor Moses wrapped up the win two minutes from time.
This success moved Antonio Conte’s reigning Premier League champions above Liverpool and into third place, 48 hours before the Reds travel to Swansea.
The margin of victory was tough on Brighton who were unable to improve on a run that has now brought the Seagulls just one win in 13 games.
Conte’s hand had been forced by the midweek dismissals of Alavaro Morata and Pedro in the FA Cup replay with Norwich City –- Chelsea eventually progressed into the fourth round after a penalty shoot-out — which meant both players were suspended for the trip to the south coast.
As a result, Chelsea coach Conte had little option but to start with a front three led by Michy Batshuayi flanked by Hazard and Willian.
Brighton’s starting line-up was much more of a surprise with manager Chris Hughton unexpectedly opting for a back three while omitting club captain Bruno Saltor and last season’s Championship player of the year, Anthony Knockaert.
Albion defence goes AWOL
But if Hughton’s intention were to bolster Brighton’s defence, his plans backfired disastrously in the opening six minutes when Chelsea, who have struggled in front of goal in recent weeks, twice carved open a reconfigured backline.
Conte’s side took full advantage of Brighton’s willingness to sit back and created a passing move that released Moses.
When the wing-back pulled the ball back from the byline, Hazard benefited from a deflection off Dale Stephens and Lewis Dunk’s slip before placing his shot beyond goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
There was even worse to come for Brighton fewer than three minutes later when Dunk’s misplaced pass handed Chelsea possession near the halfway line.
Willian collected the loose ball, found Hazard, and continued his run towards the edge of the box were he collected a return after neat flicks from Hazard and Batshuayi before firing past Ryan.
The Seagulls were shell-shocked and the game appeared to be effectively over but, to their credit, Brighton recovered and responded positively as they began to build-up momentum.
Nevertheless, their efforts to work their way back into the match were undone both by poor finishing and referee Jon Moss’s decision to reject two strong penalty appeals.
Brighton’s first claim came in the 16th minute when Chelsea keeper Willy Caballero — Thibaut Courtois was ruled out with an ankle problem –– weakly palmed a cross away and appeared to trip Ezequiel Schelotto as he attempted to recover from his mistake.
Then 20 minutes later, Albion wing-back Schelotto again burst into the area before going down under a challenge from Tiemoue Bakayoko.
With Tomer Hemed and Markus Suttner both wasting good headed chances, Brighton’s hopes dimmed, particularly as Hazard looked threatening every time he pressed forward.
The pattern was maintained after the break with Albion’s Davey Propper heading against the bar four minutes into the second half before Ryan kept Brighton in the match by pushing Willian’s free-kick onto the post and away to safety.
Hazard finally killed off the game in the 77th minute after running from deep before slotting home the third with a delightful shot back across the retreating cover.
Moses rounded off a convincing victory when he got on the end of substitute Charly Musonda’s excellent long ball to make it 4-0.