Thomas Tuchel has insisted Chelsea would be “stupid” to think they can compete for the Premier League title with their squad ravaged by Covid-19 and injuries.
Danny Welbeck’s added-time header stunned the embattled Blues to steal Brighton a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Romelu Lukaku’s early header ensured Chelsea jumped over Liverpool into second place, but the Blues only led Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool by one point with the Reds having a game in hand.
Reece James suffered a nasty-looking hamstring injury and Andreas Christensen a back problem to lengthen Chelsea’s list of absentees, with seven players still in Covid-19 isolation.
Chelsea have now slipped to four draws in their past five home league matches, to drop eight points behind leaders Manchester City.
Asked if the Blues can still compete for the title, Tuchel replied: “How should we be in it? We have seven Covid cases. We have five or six players out for six or more weeks. How should we compete in a title race?
“Everyone else who has a full squad, everybody in training has the full power to come through this league.
“We would be stupid to think we can do it out of Covid and injuries and just play, and everybody would be stupid to do it without 23 fit players.”
Asked if the Premier League’s integrity has been lost through the differing Covid profiles of each team, Tuchel said: “This is the reality. This is where we are and we have to adapt to the demands of the situation which you are in.
“I competed very hard for the win at Brighton at home. I don’t know what I can expect from my players in terms of physicality, intensity or minutes.
"Nobody knows any more because we have never done something like this. We play trial and error and see what we can do.
“I will protect my team. We can play better but we need the full squad over weeks and weeks. It’s a hamstring injury for Reece James which is a huge blow, and a back injury for Andreas Christensen.”
Chelsea could now be caught in the grip of a defensive injury plague before Sunday’s pivotal clash with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea v Brighton ratings
James and Christensen will probably miss out, Thiago Silva is still doubtful with a thigh problem and Ben Chilwell is out for the season due to knee surgery.
A fuming Tuchel hit out at referee Mike Dean for denying Chelsea a “100 per cent penalty” and also a possible goal for Mason Mount.
Tuchel felt Christian Pulisic was definitely fouled in the box without censure for Brighton in the second half, while Mount rolled the ball into the empty net only to see play brought back for a foul.
“We have a 100 per cent penalty against Christian Pulisic, a 50-50 challenge from Mason Mount right before their equaliser,” he said.
“Why does he even need to whistle before the ball is over the line? We have VAR to check. Is he so sure or does he want to keep the tension up?
"And the penalty, it’s a joke. Honestly it’s a joke not to intervene from VAR.”
Brighton proved full value for their draw amid a madcap encounter, with former Arsenal striker Welbeck popping up with the leveller with just his seventh touch having left the bench.
“I thought it was a fantastic performance from the players, full of courage, quality and against a good side, of course,” said Brighton boss Graham Potter.
“To come here and be ourselves was a big challenge. So credit to the players. They were fantastic tonight.”
Asked if Chelsea should have had a penalty for the foul on Pulisic, Potter said: “I’d have to see it back. Live, I didn’t think it was. I guess that’s why they’ve got VAR.
“If it was 100 per cent I think it would be given. I didn’t think it was at the time but I was quite a way away, to be honest.”