Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri says he is “lucky” to have so many squad options as a new-look side cruised to Premier League victory over Brighton with three excellent goals.
Olivier Giroud flicked home Callum Hudson-Odoi’s cross before Eden Hazard curled home from the edge of the box from Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s pass.
Loftus-Cheek then scored an excellent 25-yard strike into the top corner to seal victory.
All three goals involved players who have played more minutes in the Europa League than the Premier League this season.
“After 50 matches it’s very difficult to play every three days,” Sarri told BBC Sport. “We needed to change. We’re lucky because Callum is doing very well. Loftus has no problem with his back for the first time this season. Giroud is in a good period.”
The Blues, who have won their past 10 games against the Seagulls since 1967, move up to fifth in the league.
Next up for Chris Hughton’s Brighton is Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
Teenager Hudson-Odoi made his first Premier League start – having already won two caps for England – and showed quick feet to skip by Anthony Knockaert before rolling the ball across the box for Giroud to cleverly finish at the near post.
Giroud, making his first league start of 2019, is the top scorer in this season’s Europa League with nine. This was only his second league goal.
Sarri – who has long resisted calls from Chelsea fans to involve Hudson-Odoi more – now admits the 18-year-old is ready to be a first-team regular.
“Callum played very well and defended very well,” the manager said. “He has improved during the season a lot. He’s ready to play 90 minutes in very important matches.”
Chelsea side were in control without scoring a second until Hazard popped up. The Belgian, back in the starting line-up after being surprisingly rested against Cardiff on Sunday, ran on to Loftus-Cheek’s pass before cutting inside Lewis Dunk and scoring from 16 yards out.
Three minutes later roles were reversed when Hazard picked out England midfielder Loftus-Cheek who curled a beautiful effort home from long range.
Loftus-Cheek has scored five Premier League goals this season in only two starts and 16 substitute appearances.
The Blues – who have won six out of eight games in all competitions – are now only behind Arsenal and the Champions League places on goal difference.
On this form, Sarri – who has been accused of tactical inflexibility all season – could struggle to justify dropping Hudson-Odoi, Loftus-Cheek and Giroud next week.
There had been suggestions Hughton could make wholesale changes three days before his side’s first FA Cup semi-final in 36 years, but he resisted the urge with only four switches from their defeat by relegation rivals Southampton. Brighton are not safe from drop yet, five points above the bottom three.
The manager said before kick-off it was a chance for players to “stake a claim” for Wembley, but in truth nobody shone and they were deservedly beaten – although they did defend well in stages.
They managed only one shot on target, a long-range effort from Bernardo, with fellow substitute Knockaert – on for the injured Solly March – shooting wide in injury time.
“The quality can wear you down,” said Hughton after the game.
“For good periods we were very much in the game. Anthony Knockaert had our best chance of the game late on. It wasn’t like we gave up, which is important. I can’t fault what the players gave.”