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Chelsea distraught as show of resolve ruined by another sucker punch as Brighton dent title hopes

If that sounds premature, the looks on the faces of Thomas Tuchel’s players spoke volumes. Heads bowed and eyes red, they trudged towards the tunnel, knowing just how costly a result this was.

It was not only that they dropped yet more points in what has been a punishing mid-season slump. But the fact that for 91 minutes this had been a game that showcased the spirit and fortitude of the European champions in the most testing of conditions.

Despite watching Reece James and Andreas Christensen join an ever-lengthening injury list, they withstood a second-half fightback from Brighton and came within minutes of closing the gap at the top of the table to just three points, as Manchester City faced Brentford in the later kick-off.

Romelu Lukaku’s first-half header had looked like being enough in a game that, while not convincing in terms of quality from Chelsea, said much about their resolve in the face of adversity.

But when Welbeck rose above substitute Trevoh Chalobah to head Marc Cucurella’s cross into the top corner, it felt like a defeat, rather than a draw. Chelsea are at the stage where they simply cannot afford to give City any more of a head start.

Pep Guardiola had already seen Liverpool cede further ground in the title race on Tuesday night in defeat to Leicester. Now Chelsea have extended an alarming run that has seen them win just 12 points from a possible 30.

Compare that to City, who had won nine straight games heading into Wednesday’s clash with Brentford. Those are the sort of numbers the reigning champions have produced consistently under Guardiola, which is why even the narrowest of leads in the table feel like so much more in real terms.

With Chelsea hosting Liverpool on Sunday, it is now a must-win game for both teams just to ensure they are not completely cut adrift at the turn of the year.

It was yet another sucker punch for Chelsea, who have made a habit of losing the lead late on at home. Their current run began with Burnley’s 79th-minute equaliser back in November. Everton pegged them back in the 74th-minute in their previous game at Stamford Bridge before Christmas. And now Brighton in stoppage time.

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