The former Arsenal and Manchester United striker headed home in second-half stoppage time – Brighton’s first-ever goal at Stamford Bridge – to cancel out Romelu Lukaku’s first-half effort and seal a deserved share of the spoils after an entertaining festive encounter.
Chelsea showed four changes from their much-needed Boxing Day victory at Aston Villa as Lukaku and Mateo Kovacic came in for their first league starts since October and captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen replaced Trevoh Chalobah and the injured Thiago Silva in defence, with N’Golo Kante and Kai Havertz deemed fit enough for the bench.
Reece James was picked to play at left wing-back with Marcos Alonso among the substitutes as Thomas Tuchel searches for solutions following the news that Ben Chilwell will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery.
And Chelsea made a fast start to proceedings, almost going ahead after Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez hopelessly flapped at a corner and Azpilicueta’s poked finish after a Mason Mount touch hit the base of the post, with a glancing header from Antonio Rudiger then held by Sanchez.
The lightning-quick Tariq Lamptey was a real threat down Brighton’s right flank on his first return to the club he left in January 2020, having a penalty appeal turned down after a tussle with James and then steering a shot wide after cutting inside onto his left foot.
The Blues did go in front shortly before the 30-minute mark, with Lukaku easily shrugging off the attentions of Neal Maupay before rising above Jakub Moder to head home James’ corner for his second goal in as many games.
It was Chelsea’s eighth headed goal of the season and their seventh from a corner – both leading marks in the top-flight – and stood after a VAR check, despite an irate Maupay feeling he was fouled by his striking counterpart.
Chelsea’s relentless injury woes then continued as James went down in considerable pain with a hamstring problem and was replaced by Alonso, with Christensen also hobbling with a back issue until half-time, when he had to make way for Chalobah.
The hosts completely failed to build on their advantage on the scoreboard, with Brighton ending the first half firmly in the ascendancy as Alexis Mac Allister, Yves Bissouma – back from suspension as one of three Seagulls changes – and Adam Lallana all tested Edouard Mendy, while Rudiger was very fortunate to only receive a yellow card from referee Mike Dean for a wild, two-footed diving challenge on Lamptey.
Brighton carried that momentum into the second half, oozing confidence and playing some excellent attacking football despite trailing but failing to convert that impressive play into goals – a familiar problem for a team that only ended an 11-match winless streak against Brentford on Boxing Day.
Moder tried to flick Lallana’s cross into the far corner and Bissouma tested Mendy’s reflexes with a fierce half-volley from long-range, while Callum Hudson-Odoi’s decision-making cost Chelsea a likely second goal before Maupay drove wide.
Mendy did well to close down the angle on Mac Allister before Rudiger diverted Maupay’s low effort behind and Lamptey pulled another shot wide as Brighton continued to pile on the pressure in search of an equaliser.
However, Chelsea made significant improvements following the introduction of Kante, who was initially a big doubt for this game after another knee injury sustained at Aston Villa but trained at Cobham on Tuesday.
Suddenly they went from clinging on unconvincingly to pouring forward in search of the goal that would put the game out of reach, with Joel Veltman – perhaps lucky not to concede a penalty following a kick to the shin of Christian Pulisic – doing superbly to clear Rudiger’s squared header out for a corner with Alonso lurking and Marc Cucurella then blocking Mount’s low attempt.
It was all set up for a nervy final few minutes and Chelsea looked set for a hard-fought if unconvincing win in trying circumstances, until sub Welbeck rose brilliantly between Rudiger and Chalobah to head Cucurella’s cross beyond the helpless Mendy to spark pandemonium in the away end as Chelsea were left to rue yet more dropped points in an increasingly one-sided title race.