The wheels are coming off Chelsea’s Premier League title bid, as a late, late Danny Welbeck header and two more injuries made it a miserable night for Thomas Tuchel’s walking wounded.
Romelu Lukaku’s header looked like it would somehow secure a victory over Brighton, who wasted a host of good chances before substitute Welbeck headed an equaliser in the first minute of time added on for stoppages.
The goal was a huge blow to Chelsea’s hopes of remaining in the title race, ahead of Sunday’s visit of Liverpool, and Tuchel has even more injuries to contend with as he somehow attempts to lift his squad with leaders Manchester City now eight points ahead of them.
Chelsea have won just four times in their last 10 League games and have dropped nine points in December. Tuchel will at least be relieved to see the end of the month.
Just 24 hours after it was confirmed Ben Chilwell requires surgery, Reece James (hamstring) and Andreas Christensen (back) were the latest Chelsea players to suffer injuries and the European champions looked dead on their feet on Wednesday night.
Chelsea midfielder Jorginho had resorted to urging the home crowd to hold on to the ball during the final minutes of the game, such was the pressure Brighton had exerted.
Chelsea’s fans duly obliged by refusing to give the visitors the ball back when it went out of play. But the tactic did not look so smart, when, in the time added on for stoppages and time wasting, Marc Cucurella floated in a cross and Welbeck got in between Trevoh Chalobah and Antonio Rudiger to condemn Chelsea to their third draw in four League games.
It would not have done much for Tuchel’s mood to find out that the goal was Brighton’s first-ever in the League at Stamford Bridge and he was furious that a second-half penalty claim for a challenge on Christian Pulisic by Joel Veltman was ignored.
Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy made some brilliant saves, but Chelsea will soon be without him, too, as the Senegal international is due to go to the African Cup of Nations after the visit of Liverpool.
With Chilwell out for the rest of the season, Tuchel decided to trial James at left wing-back and give Marcos Alonso a rest.
But the experiment was cut short after just 27 minutes, with Alonso required to replace James after the England international was hurt under a challenge from Yves Bissouma.
Chelsea’s physios were still explaining the injury James had suffered to members of the home bench when Lukaku headed his side in front.
Just as he had beaten Tyrone Mings in the air to score against Aston Villa, Lukaku was far too strong for Neal Maupay when Mason Mount swung over a corner and he glanced a header brilliantly past Robert Sanchez.
There had been another injury scare for Chelsea five minutes before James was forced off, when Christensen required treatment.
Christensen had replaced the injured Thiago Silva and it looked like the Dane would go off when Chalobah stripped off and warmed up but he was able to continue. Chalobah, though, was sent on to replace Christensen for the start of the second half.
Cesar Azpilicueta hit the post on his 450th appearance for Chelsea in the 17th minute. Sanchez flapped at a corner and the ball fell to Mount, who poked it forwards and Azpilicueta scuffed an effort against the Brighton upright.
Antonio Rudiger then headed straight at Sanchez before being lucky to escape with only a yellow card five minutes before the half-time break for a lunge at Tariq Lamptey.
Brighton enjoyed their best spell of the first half after falling behind and Mendy produced an excellent save to keep out an Adam Lallana shot.
Tuchel has been a vocal advocate for a return to five substitutions and he was already two down with just one left to use with an entire 45 minutes to get through.
Chalobah took Christensen’s place in the centre of Chelsea’s back three for the start of the second half and the majority of Stamford Bridge breathed a sigh of relief when Jakub Moder’s poked volley from a Lallana cross looped over Mendy and just over the crossbar.
Chelsea felt they should have been given the opportunity to double their lead when Pulisic appeared to be fouled by Veltman in the area, but Brighton remained on the front foot.
Mendy had to be alert to punch away a free-kick from Alexis Mac Allister at his near post after Pulisic had fouled Lallana and the goalkeeper also tipped over a well-struck effort from Bissouma.
Chelsea were clinging on, but should have doubled their lead in the 56th minute, when Lukaku sent Callum Hudson-Odoi racing away. The home team were two-on-one and looked certain to score, but the winger’s intended pass for the unmarked Mount was not hit cleanly and Dan Burn managed to make a crucial interception.
Maupay flashed a low shot wide and, when Lamptey went close in the 61st minute, Brighton had managed 13 shots on Chelsea’s goal with the hosts only having six of their own. It was barely believable Brighton had not managed to take one of their chances and Lallana was the next to squander an opportunity by volleying over the bar.
N’Golo Kante’s introduction looked to have seen Chelsea stem Brighton’s tide of attacks, but Welbeck’s stoppage-time header put a huge dent in the hosts’ title hopes.