Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Cole Palmer on target at Brighton as Chelsea close in on European qualification

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Cole Palmer helped steer Chelsea a step closer to European qualification by claiming his 22nd Premier League goal of the season in a pulsating 2-1 win at Brighton.

The in-form England forward, who was targeted by the Seagulls before joining the Blues from Manchester City last summer, headed home a delightful 34th-minute opener at the Amex Stadium.

Substitute Christopher Nkunku secured the west London club’s fourth consecutive league victory to dent Brighton’s bid for a top-half finish.

A positive evening for the visitors was dampened slightly by fellow replacement Reece James receiving a late red card for kicking out at Joao Pedro, before Danny Welbeck claimed an added-time consolation.

Brighton, who substituted captain Lewis Dunk at half-time, also hit the crossbar through Pedro, while Simon Adingra struck a post before Welbeck’s goal and felt aggrieved to have a strong penalty claim waved away with the score 1-0.

Mauricio Pochettino’s visitors had earlier seen a spot-kick award overturned following VAR intervention in an incident-packed contest.

Following a difficult start to his tenure, the Argentinian coach has now seen his resurgent side collect 32 points in 2024 to bring continental football within touching distance going into the final day.

Chelsea’s last trip to Sussex was a humbling 4-1 defeat in October 2022 when former boss Graham Potter was cast as the pantomime villain on his first return to Brighton.

Marc Cucurella (left) was booed at his former club (Adam Davy/PA)

Ex-Seagulls pair Marc Cucurella and Moises Caicedo shared that role on this occasion in a fixture which has gained an extra edge due to the succession of staff and players swapping the south coast for Stamford Bridge.

Left-back Cucurella attracted further ire from the stands by committing three early fouls without being booked and then winning a 16th-minute penalty.

Referee Michael Salisbury immediately pointed to the spot after the Spanish left-back went down in the 18-yard box but, to the delight of home fans, changed the decision on review as replays showed Brighton forward Facundo Buonanotte won the ball.

Amid the fractious atmosphere and frantic start, Chelsea created the better openings.

Albion goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen had already saved from Noni Madueke and Palmer when he pulled off an eye-catching save to deny Malo Gusto’s deflected, dipping effort in the 26th minute.

The Blues duly edged ahead 11 minutes before the break.

Cucurella, who continued to be jeered, was directly involved, cutting the ball back from the left for the stooping Palmer to direct a fine looping header into the far corner.

Albion head coach Roberto De Zerbi is determined to end a demanding season of injury setbacks and Europa League football with a top-10 place.

Adingra went closest for the hosts in the opening stages, firing narrowly wide in the 10th minute at the end of a flowing team move from back to front.

Chelsea, who were forced to replace the injured Mykhailo Mudryk with Nkunku, could easily have established a two-goal half-time lead.

Christopher Nkunku put Chelsea 2-0 up
Christopher Nkunku put Chelsea 2-0 up (Adam Davy/PA)

Nicolas Jackson was penalised for a push on Tariq Lamptey after heading home Benoit Badiashile’s inswinging cross from the right before directing Palmer’s cross over from inside the six-yard box in the fourth of nine added minutes.

Yet the Blues were fortunate to escape minutes later when Pedro’s powerful header cannoned off the crossbar following Lamptey’s delivery.

After Seagulls skipper Dunk failed to reappear for the second period, Chelsea breathed further sighs of relief.

French defender Gusto escaped punishment having appeared to bring down Adingra in the area, while Pascal Gross later somehow prodded wide from close range.

An equaliser looked extremely likely but Brighton were sucker-punched in the 64th minute.

Danny Welbeck pulls one back for Brighton
Danny Welbeck pulls one back for Brighton (Adam Davy/PA)

Madueke released Gusto down the right and he cut the ball back for Nkunku to calmly slot his first goal since January from close to the penalty spot.

Brighton’s evening could have become worse 10 minutes from time but keeper Verbruggen escaped with a yellow card after racing out his box and bringing down the onrushing Jackson.

Chelsea defender James – on in the 69th minute for only his second appearance since December during an injury-plagued season – received no such reprieve two minutes from time.

The England international pushed his studs into Pedro after being tackled to the floor and, following another VAR review, was dismissed for the second time this term.

Adingra then volleyed against the left upright before Welbeck poked in Pedro’s low cross in the seventh minute of added time to briefly increase the tension.

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