For a team in their elevated position Chelsea were, quite frankly, a disappointment at Stamford Bridge last night. Indeed 12 minutes from time they had reason to be grateful for the draw which seemed to be heading their way. Then a moment's aberration on the part of young Mitch Ward, signed on loan from Sheffield United this week, undid 78 minutes of hard graft on Everton's part.
Roberto Di Matteo was going nowhere when he made a run wide on the left of Everton's penalty area but Ward dived in and brought the Italian down with an ill-timed challenge, leaving Dennis Wise to inflict harsh retribution from the penalty.
Unable to redress matters, Everton's woe was complete in injury time when Slaven Bilic was sent off for a foul on the substitute, Tore Andre Flo, from which Gianfranco Zola added a second goal, also from the spot.
Ruud Gullit was not about to offer any excuses for their victory - "the game had to be won and we did" - but then neither did Blackburn's Roy Hodgson after a similarly fortuitous victory over Chelsea last Saturday. A draw would have hoisted Everton to 17th position, and for a side who have not won away in 11 months that would have been tantamount to a victory.
Chelsea's defeat at Ewood Park when Zola passed up on a hat-trick of chances invited a response from Gullit and, sure enough, he gave one, recalling Gianluca Vialli for his first League start in two months, though not in place of his erring little countryman but Mark Hughes instead. But it was in the creation of chances rather than in the taking of them that Chelsea seemed so lacking, not unlike Everton, whose own midfield cries out for someone more authoritative than Gary Speed.
Zola almost repaid his managers' faith in his only slightly tarnished skills early in the game when he curled a free-kick from 25 yards past Neville Southall, only for Duncan Ferguson to head off the goal line.
Big Dunc was to prove a handful at either end of the field for Chelsea, once hitting a post with a header and drawing a finger-tip save from Ed de Goey. That proved to be Everton's last stab at victory. Six minutes later Ward blundered and Chelsea were on their way up the table. If Chelsea beat Derby on Saturday they could even go top for a day, though I doubt whether United and Rovers will lose much sleep over that on Saturday night.
Chelsea: (4-4-2) De Goey; Sinclair, Clarke (Graville, 51), Duberry, Babayaro; Petrescu, Wise, De Matteo, Nicholls (M Hughes, 51); Zola, Vialli (Flo, 75). Substitutes not used not used: Crittenden, Hitchcock (gk).
Everton (4-4-2): Southall; Ward, Short, Bilic, Hinchcliffe; Farrelly (Cadamarteri, 70), Williamson, Speed, Phelan (Ball, 70); Ferguson, Barmby. Substitutes not used: Oster, Thomas, O'Toole (gk).
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).