LONDON (AFP) - Brazilian midfielder Willian scored an 89th-minute winner as Chelsea edged Everton 1-0 on Wednesday to preserve their seven-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the Premier League.
With City en route to a 4-1 win at Stoke City, the defending champions looked poised to trim Chelsea's lead to five points, only for Willian to break Everton's resistance with a crisp, low strike at Stamford Bridge.
"It's beautiful to win in the last minute, and it's so sad to lose," said Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.
"We are very, very happy and we think we deserve it. We fought so hard to try and win the game." Mourinho handed a full debut to January signing Juan Cuadrado, but in the ongoing absence of suspended top scorer Diego Costa, his side were initially frustrated by Roberto Martinez's Everton.
The home side dominated the game, with Willian and Cuadrado shooting off-target in the first half and fit-again Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard thwarting Eden Hazard, Nemanja Matic and Willian in the second.
Everton's best two chances fell to former Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, but he was denied on both occasions by Petr Cech.
Preferred to Thibaut Courtois, the Czech shot-stopper jutted out a foot to thwart his former team-mate in the first half and then produced a stunning point-blank save to deny the Belgian in the 68th minute.
Chelsea thought they had broken the deadlock in the latter stages when a shot from Matic flicked off Branislav Ivanovic and went in, but it was ruled out for offside.
Mourinho's men continued to press, however, and after Everton's Gareth Barry had been shown a second yellow card following a heated melee, Willian snatched the winner.
Howard left his line to punch clear a high cross, but could only send the ball to Willian, who drilled a controlled shot through a crowd of players and into the bottom-right corner.
City's victory at the Britannia Stadium, constructed around a brace by Sergio Aguero, ended a run of four games without a win as they returned to winning ways following a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Hull City.
The visitors were looking to record a first league win at Stoke in seven attempts and they took a 33rd-minute lead when Aguero ran onto a punt from James Milner and fired into the bottom-left corner.
UNITED RECLAIM THIRD
Peter Crouch equalised five minutes later, stooping to head home a Marko Arnautovic cross at the far post, but Milner put City back in front by heading in a cross from Samir Nasri early in the second period.
Aguero scored from the penalty spot after Geoff Cameron was adjudged to have fouled David Silva before Nasri got on the score-sheet in the 79th minute by surging to the edge of the box and slamming home.
"We returned to our normal performance, especially in the second half," City manager Manuel Pellegrini told the BBC.
"It is important, not just the score, but also because it is not easy to score four goals at Stoke."
Elsewhere, Manchester United climbed above Southampton and Arsenal to reclaim third place by winning 3-1 at home to second-bottom Burnley, with early substitute Chris Smalling scoring twice.
Stung by accusations his side had played "long-ball" football in their 1-1 draw at West Ham United on Sunday, United manager Louis van Gaal saw his team take a sixth-minute lead courtesy of Smalling.
The England defender had only been on the pitch for a matter of seconds after replacing the injured Phil Jones when he scored with his first touch by heading home from a corner.
Danny Ings headed in Kieran Trippier's inviting cross to equalise six minutes later, but another Smalling header restored United's lead in first-half injury time before Robin van Persie added a late penalty.
"I didn't like this performance today," said Van Gaal. "Of course, we have won and the result is fantastic. But after this match you cannot say that we are going up and I want to progress every match."
Southampton fell to fourth place after a 0-0 draw at home to West Ham in which visiting goalkeeper Adrian was sent off in the 61st minute for handling the ball outside his area.
Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew's reunion with former club Newcastle United ended in a 1-1 draw at Selhurst Park, with Fraizer Campbell cancelling out Papiss Cisse's opener to earn the home side a point.
Meanwhile, recalled strikers Brown Ideye and Saido Berhaino each scored second-half goals as West Bromwich Albion beat Swansea City 2-0 to climb to 14th.