LONDON (AP) – Chelsea dropped more points in the Premier League title race by conceding a 77th-minute equaliser to draw 1-1 with injury-hit Everton on Thursday.
Missing all of its strikers because of the coronavirus or illness, Chelsea struggled to break down Everton’s packed, makeshift defence until Reece James led a 70th-minute counterattack and fed Mason Mount to score for the fourth straight league game.
However, Chelsea’s recent weakness in defence was exposed again as Jarrad Branthwaite – a 19-year-old defender only playing because of Everton’s injury crisis – poked in at the far post from a free kick.
Chelsea has only won two of its last five league games and has fallen out of the lead.
The team is four points behind first-place Manchester City after 17 games.
Thomas Tuchel’s team drew at home to Manchester United and lost at West Ham in that five-game span, and only beat Leeds last weekend thanks to a stoppage-time penalty.
Tuchel, though, called this latest setback a “freak result”.
“I would be more concerned if we were totally out of form and always conceding the first goal and struggling to come back,” Tuchel said. “Maybe that would be easier to analyse. I don’t think it’s so easy to analyse our situation.”
“We could be sat here,” he added, “talking about a 3-0 win that would be fantastic because of the players we missed, but again it is mistakes that has cost us.”
Chelsea was without strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner and winger Callum Hudson-Odoi after they tested positive for COVID-19. Kai Havertz, who might have filled in as a striker, was also missing after complaining of feeling unwell.
Asked if Chelsea had wanted the game postponed due to the COVID-19 cases, Tuchel said: “No, we did not discuss one second about it.
“I don’t even know the rules and am not interested in knowing them, I just prepare my team. We knew at 12 o’clock who was ready to play and who was out. And the focus is always for the guys who play.”
Everton was worse off in terms of absentees, with Richarlison, Andros Townsend and Seamus Coleman this week joining an already-long injury and illness list of 12 players.
Rafa Benitez, a former interim manager at Chelsea, was forced to play youngsters Branthwaite, Anthony Gordon and Ellis Simms, who made his first-team debut up front.
Asked if this was his most important result so far at Everton, Benitez said: “You can say that, because we have so many issues, with injuries, with illness.
“The way the team played, reacted when we conceded, showed character. It’s a great point, not just the point but the way we claimed it. Everyone realised how important and how difficult it was afterwards.”
Everton’s traveling fans unfurled a ‘Rafa out’ banner before kickoff but were cheering him by the end.