This was not Chelsea’s best evening of football and there were times when the league leaders might even have lost their cool, but as Manchester City ran away with victory at Stoke City the urgency to win the game never wavered.
When the winner from Willian came on 89 minutes the celebrations on the bench and among the players told you that this was a big moment in the season.
There was controversy too, in the grappling that followed Gareth Barry’s second yellow card in the final stages of the match. The Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic was clearly caught by the television cameras with his arm around the throat of James McCarthy, the Everton substitute, and then seemed to lean into McCarthy with his forehead. The referee Jonathan Moss appeared to be unsighted as players crowded around him.
Mourinho will defy the Football Association to press a charge against another one of his players and goodness knows, this is one fight the governing body would rather not have to get involved in. But it might just have to.
There was crucial second half save from Petr Cech, back in the Chelsea goal, and a fine performance from Tim Howard who also returned for Everton. But Roberto Martinez’s team are in are in a bad place at the moment and have just one win in nine league games.
Cech made one save in the first half from a good move from Everton, perhaps their only one of the first half, when Ross Barkley and Steven Naismith worked the ball to Romelu Lukaku who should have done better with his shot, saved by Cech with his legs. In those early stages, Chelsea might have overwhelmed their visitors but instead they failed to make the breakthrough that reflected their good work.
Muhamed Besic was booked within five minutes for a foul on Eden Hazard, then later Barry, his midfield partner, picked up his first booking leaving Everton with little room to manoeuvre. Nemanja Matic and Willian both had shots in the first six minutes. Juan Cuadrado, making his first start, shot just wide from the right side on ten minutes.
With Diego Costa sat in the stands for the third and last game of his FA ban it was clear again that the side lacked that cutting edge. Loic Remy took his place in the side and did little to reassure Mourinho. Costa watched from behind the dug-outs in a black polo-neck and grey bomber jacket looking every inch the hit-man he often resembles on the pitch.
As ever, Mourinho was unhappy with most of what referee Moss did. The first booking for Barry came when he thrust himself head-first into Cuadrado’s midriff in a desperate attempt to stop the Colombian getting away. He had his first post-yellow card taking to before the break by referee Moss, a warning that he was treading a dangerous line.
There was another appeal for Chelsea on 27 minutes when the young English centre-back John Stones wrapped an arm around the waist of Remy in the box and prevented the French striker from challenging properly for a cross from the right.
It had been a good half for Howard, straight back into the team in place of Joel Robles. At half-time, Martinez took no risks with Besic and replaced him with McCarthy. After the break, the Everton midfield seemed to cope better with Mourinho’s side although the away side rarely threatened.
For much of the second half Mourinho’s team lacked the ideas or the energy to put their opponents under the kind of pressure that might break them and the longer that Everton held out, the more their confidence grew. Matic had run the game from his position in front of the back four in the first half, but McCarthy prevented the Serb having as much of the ball after the break.
There was a good run and cross from Hazard just before the hour and whenever he was on the ball, it looked like there were possibilities for Chelsea. He had earlier drawn Seamus Coleman out of position and forced the full-back to foul him for a booking. Yet Hazard was on the ball too little for Chelsea. Matic struck a free-kick after the hour that Howard saved. Willian hit a shot over.
It felt inevitable that a chance would go Everton’s way at some point and so it fell on 68 minutes when Bryan Oviedo got the ball over from the left and Lukaku, completely unmarked in the six-yard area, had a clear sight of goal with his left foot. This was Cech’s moment. The goalkeeper reacted instantaneously to block the ball with his foot and Chelsea escaped.
Mourinho has seen enough and unleashed Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas on Everton but it was not until the final moments of the game that they finally got their breakthrough. There was a goal for Matic disallowed when the ball took a touch off Ivanovic in an offside position. An increasingly fractious game eventually caught fire with Barry’s second yellow card foul and the ensuing chaos that saw Ivanovic put his arm around McCarthy’s throat.
The goal came from a clearing punch from Howard that fell to Willian in the left channel. The Brazilian hit his shot low and hard and at the last moment Naismith thrust out a foot that put enough on the ball to take it past the Everton goalkeeper. The home bench erupted and the leaders kept their lead from City at the top at seven points.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpilicueta; Ramires, Matic; Cuadrado, Hazard, Willian; Remy.
Subs: Drogba/Remy 70, Fabregas/Cuadrado 70, Cahill/Willian 90
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard: Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Oviedo; Besic, Barry; Lennon, Naismith, Barkley; Lukaku.
Subs: McCarthy/Besic ht, Gibson/Barkley 74, Mirallas/Lennon 74
Referee: J Moss
Man of the match: Matic
Booked: Chelsea Azpilicueta, Ramires, Fabregas Everton Besic, Barry, Coleman, McCarthy
Sent off: Barry