LONDON – Chelsea eased the pressure on under-fire boss Maurizio Sarri as Callum Hudson-Odoi’s influential display, and sublime strikes from Eden Hazard and Ruben Loftus-Cheek sealed a 3-0 win over Brighton on Wednesday.
Sarri couldn’t afford a negative result against struggling Brighton at Stamford Bridge after being subjected to fresh calls for his sacking during Sunday’s unconvincing win at Cardiff.
The angry Chelsea fans who showed their displeasure at the weekend were in part motivated by Sarri’s refusal to select England winger Hudson-Odoi.
But Sarri finally unleashed Hudson-Odoi for his first Premier League start, while Loftus-Cheek also made the most of a rare appearance as the youngsters bolstered Chelsea’s bid for a top-four finish.
Hudson-Odoi set up Olivier Giroud’s first-half opener and Loftus-Cheek provided the assist for Hazard’s superb second.
England midfielder Loftus-Cheek capped a morale-boosting victory for the troubled Blues when the 23-year-old netted a majestic third to kill off FA Cup semi-finalists Brighton.
Chelsea are up to fifth place, behind fourth-placed Arsenal on goal difference as the race to qualify for the Champions League approaches a dramatic denouement.
Achieving that target is essential for Sarri as he battles to avoid the sack in a turbulent first season in charge.
Criticised for leaving Hudson-Odoi as an unused substitute against Cardiff, Sarri at last bowed to public pressure.
Hudson-Odoi was one of seven changes, with Hazard and N’Golo Kante returning after being rested in south Wales.
The 18-year-old’s fine performances for England recently shone the spotlight on Sarri’s decision to use him so infrequently.
Hudson-Odoi had played mostly in Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup ties, with his Premier League appearances coming from the bench.
Infuriated by his bit-part role, Hudson-Odoi has considered leaving, with Bayern Munich making their interest public before having a bid rebuffed by Chelsea in the January transfer window.
Sarri would be a brave man to drop him again, but whether Chelsea can persuade him to stay remains to be seen.
Hudson-Odoi’s name was loudly cheered when the team was read out before kickoff, and he almost made the perfect start when his burst into the Brighton area ended with Shane Duffy deflecting his shot narrowly over.
Adding a much-needed cutting edge to Chelsea’s attack, Hudson-Odoi unfurled a pinpoint cross that was headed over by Cesar Azpilicueta.
Hudson-Odoi was a constant threat and he played a key role as Chelsea made the breakthrough in the 38th minute.
Hazard’s precise pass found Hudson-Odoi on the right flank, and he effortlessly eased past Anthony Knockaert with a nimble piece of footwork, before whipping over a low cross that Giroud cleverly flicked in from close range.
It was Giroud’s first Premier League goal since November and his 11th in all competitions, rewarding Sarri’s decision to pick him instead of the misfiring Gonzalo Higuain.
Hudson-Odoi was a far more potent presence than either Willian or Pedro have been on the flanks for Chelsea this season.
Rising to meet Jorginho’s cross in the second half, Hudson-Odoi showed impressive strength to get in front of his marker, but could only head straight at Mat Ryan.
While Hudson-Odoi’s potential is undeniable, Hazard remains Chelsea’s main man, a point he stylishly underlined in the 60th minute.
Teed up by Loftus-Cheek on the edge of the Brighton area, Hazard fooled Lewis Dunk with a drop of the shoulder that left the Brighton defender sliding past him, giving the Belgian time to bend a fine finish into the far corner.
Inspired by that moment of magic, Loftus-Cheek produced a show-stopper of his own three minutes later when he curled a superb 25-yard strike into the roof of Ryan’s net for his second goal in successive games.