A late equaliser from substitute Javier Hernandez was enough for David Moyes’ West Ham United to pick up a hugely important point in the complexion of the Premier League relegation battle against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
On a day that was dedicated to the memory of the Blues and England legend Ray Wilkins, who sadly passed away aged 61 last week, Cesar Azpilicueta gave the home side the lead in the latter stages of the first-half from a set-piece, his celebration in ode to the former assistant manager.
The Hammers had to soak up plenty of pressure from the home side before they could even think about getting level, finally starting to threaten and doing so with just under 20 minutes remaining, Chicharito drilling home from just inside the area for the draw.
The point meant that the Pensioners fell a further two behind Tottenham Hotspur above them in fourth place, they are now a full ten points between them and the top four, while the East Londoners have now put six points between themselves and the bottom three with as many matches of the campaign remaining.
From the start in West London, home manager Conte decided on just two changes to his starting Xl from the London derby defeat to Tottenham at Stamford Bridge last Sunday.
Belgium International goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made his return from injury to take the place of back-up shot-stopper Willy Caballero and captain Gary Cahill also came back to replace young Danish centre-back Andreas Christensen.
Meanwhile, visiting boss Moyes also scrimped on his alterations from the London Stadium thrashing of Southampton a day earlier, making just the one forced change to his team.
Attacker Michail Antonio saw his season ended by a hamstring injury in the besting of the Saints, the man who replaced him that day in Switzerland star Edimilson Fernandes made his first start since November in his place, playmaker Manuel Lanzini missed out too by failing a second consecutive late fitness test.
Ahead of kick-off at a drizzly Stamford Bridge, the place Wilkins plied his trade for so many years, a moving minute’s applause was observed in his memory as tears were shed on an emotional afternoon in West London.
Spurred on by the spirit of getting the win for the much-loved ex-England skipper, the Blues threatened early on and could have and probably should have led in the opening exchanges.
Eden Hazard was the focal point of Conte’s men’s forward movements all match, laying down a gauntlet on four minutes by marching beyond the Irons midfield and clipping the post with his shot and out for a goal-kick.
The visitors were nearly very much the masters of their own downfall next when Aaron Cresswell gave the ball away in a dangerous position, though they weren’t punished and Cresswell soon also proved a threat at the other end.
His dangerous delivery, as the Hammers got forward for one of the first times in the affair, flashed across the box and out the other side with no defining touch, this came moments after Marko Arnautovic was picked out by Arthur Masuaku, though unable to test out the returning Courtois.
The highlight of a scrappy opening to the contest was another tribute to Wilkins in the eighth minute which involved more applause and heart-touching scenes, though Chelsea soon found their mojo.
Moyes’ men hadn’t learned from previous errors and Fernandes was the one to easily give up possession this time, Willian taking it down the right and looking for Alvaro Morata, the heroic tackle of Angelo Ogbonna stopping the ball from getting there.
The Spaniard would have the ball in the back of the net on two occasions, both being flagged offside by the Linesman, the first coming on 24 minutes when he was played through by Hazard to slip under Joe Hart and in.
The second arrived in the early second period when he was on the end of a swift break after Masuaku’s misplaced pass, this one was a lot tighter, but nevertheless, replays showed that the correct decision was indeed made.
The duo of Hazard and Morata continued to cause all kinds of problems as the half-hour mark approached, they combined once more inside the box with the latter trying a clever flicked finish and rolling the ball just wide of the far post.
Despite the best efforts of a stretched West Ham defence, it wasn’t going to be long before the deadlock was finally broken by the hosts and it almost came from a moment of scintillating attacking play.
The skill and trickery of Chelsea’ Belgian No10 gave Willian the Brazilian a golden opportunity, but Three Lions hopeful Hart denied him with a wonderful stop.
However, the keeper’s work was soon undone by some questionable defending from the following corner, a delivery swinging in from the right was poorly dealt with and the ball fell to Spanish International Azpilicueta,
He was able to maneuverer his body cleverly and get a shot off at goal, the ball trickling beyond Cresswell and rooting a dumfounded Hart to the spot, bulging the back of the net.
The free-scoring defender’s goal brought an emotional reaction from the home faithful as he dedicated it to his former coach with a classy celebration, which almost proved a platform for further Blues goals.
If it wasn’t for the heroic defending of the likes of Man of the Match candidate Declan Rice and Cresswell, making up for earlier mistakes, it could well have been, though the West Londoners couldn’t add to that lead before the break.
The late work of Pablo Zabaleta did offer the away side some encouragement in winning a corner that wasn’t capitalised on, although the two teams went in at the break narrowly separated.
While Chelsea had, had the better of the chances so far, Moyes’ men were by no means out of the game at that stage and they reminded their opponents of this early doors, Arnautovic curling an effort for Courtois to save.
When the strugglers did level the scores mid-way through the second-half, they had only managed a handful of touches in the penalty area of their opposition, the same couldn’t be said of Conte’s men, however.
They threw a barrage of offensives at their London rivals as they looked to make themselves a bit more comfortable, but they far from had their shooting boots on, fortunately for the Irons, who were weakened at the back by Cresswell’s injury which saw him replaced by veteran Patrice Evra.
Ex-Hammer Victor Moses was among those to try his luck, failing to hit the target twice in that period with wayward shots, the other wing-back Marcos Alonso was also getting involved.
These two carried on supporting the front three throughout the half and even when they did get efforts on goal, a determined Hart was not going to be beaten again, making five key saves, the pick of them being at a detrimental time late in the match.
For all the Pensioners’ dominance, the side from East London still looked to get at them on the counter-attack, Arnautovic spearheading the attack on his own and often running into brick walls.
He needed more support and something a little different to get through and this was exactly what he got with the introduction of Mexico’s all-time leading scorer Chicharito on 70 minutes.
Mere moments later, he held up the ball in the opposing half and played it to Zabaleta, he eventually found captain Mark Noble who set in Arnautovic over the top.
The Austrian got to the ball with the help of Cahill to pull it back for Hernandez to do what he does best, continuing his remarkable record as a substitute at Stamford Bridge of netting every time he has come on at the ground.
The powerful and accurate finish from just inside the box sent the travelling Claret & Blue into delirium, turning the game on his head and giving his team a whiff of a point.
Once they could smell the point, they could have had all three when the breaking Arnautovic was fouled by N’Golo Kante close to the by-line in the 16-yard box, referee Kevin Friend controversially deciding not to award the penalty four minutes from time.
Moyes may have felt hard done by to not get the win, but he certainly had Hart to thank for holding onto the stalemate, producing a wonderous 88th-minute save to somehow tip an Olivier Giroud header onto the post and out for a corner.
The Frenchman’s nearly moment was the last of many Chelsea chances to improve their day, although, in the end, they dropped points at home once more, whilst, a point would have felt like three for the visitors as the referee brought an entertaining London derby to an end in the capital.
There will be little time to rest for Conte and his depleted team as they now travel to face the Saints on Saturday lunchtime in desperate need of a comeback three points.
Whereas, the East Londoners will be hoping to harness their new-found confidence once again when they play host to Stoke City in the next Monday Night Football, a must-win in their ever-improving bid to maintain their Top-Flight status.
Hammer of the Match: Joe Hart.