LIVERPOOL // Suddenly Chelsea's status is clear. For four-fifths of the game, they seemed a side in the five-way fight for the remaining two Uefa Champions League places. Yet Frank Lampard's winner had a transformative effect.
With the extra two points it provided, the momentum it gave Chelsea and the significance of becoming the first visitors to win at Goodison Park this season, they proved themselves title challengers.
They may be 11 points behind leaders Manchester United but they have a game in hand, a series of four successive victories to their name and the sense that Rafa Benitez's impact is growing with every game.
Sluggish at the start, Chelsea finished strongly at Goodison, the sort of turnaround that reflects well on the Spanish manager, the control freak on the touchline. The one thing beyond his powers, of course, is keeping his match-winner at Stamford Bridge.
"Lampard is a great player, a good professional and he is doing well for us," Benitez said. "I will try and bring the best from him until the end of the season."
But, it appears, not beyond then. The midfielder's contract expires in the summer, Chelsea will not be offering him another and a parting of the ways appears inevitable.
Nevertheless, this was an eloquent reminder of Lampard's qualities, a brace taken with predatory excellence as Chelsea succeeded where the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool failed by taking all three points at fortress Goodison.
"It was a great win for us," said Benitez. "It was one of our most difficult games."
It was made all the harder after a minute when Steven Pienaar put Everton ahead.
The South Africa international midfielder had released the overlapping Phil Jagielka with a pass from the half-way line.
The makeshift right-back galloped beyond Ashley Cole and picked out Victor Anichebe, who headed against the post.
And there, having advanced from the centre circle to the penalty box, was Pienaar to drill in the rebound, his third goal in five games.
Yet Everton found it easier to strike wood than find the net thereafter.
While Pienaar sparkled and scored, Nikica Jelavic, who is finding goals particularly elusive at the moment, hit the post, with a free kick, and the bar, with a diving header.
"We have been unfortunate," David Moyes, the Everton manager, said.
His team have now hit the woodwork 17 times this season, while Petr Cech made fine saves to deny Jelavic and Leon Osman. Deep into stoppage time, Jelavic had a chance to equalise but his goalscoring touch has deserted him.
"We played really well and we've run the European champions really close," Moyes said.
Indeed, they outran them at the start when, Benitez conceded: "We made some mistakes."
A reshuffle helped correct them. After starting on the right, Juan Mata's influence only grew when he was brought into the centre of midfield.
Ramires, who moved in the opposite direction, also became more prominent and he created the equaliser with a cross that was headed in by Lampard.
He may be in his 35th year, but his eye for an opening remains as acute as ever. Practically his first foray forward resulted in a goal.
Another venture deep into Everton territory brought a second.
The deep-lying midfielder found himself the furthest player forward to dispatch the rebound after Tim Howard parried Mata's shot.
"If he can score goals every game I will be pleased," Benitez said.
So, too, will Lampard, who could become a history maker if he can sustain his form and fitness. He now has 192 Chelsea goals and is chasing down Bobby Tambling's club record of 202.
It is not enough to earn him a reprieve but goal scorers are on the agenda at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are in talks to sign Newcastle United's prolific Senegalese forward Demba Ba, who will replace the departing Daniel Sturridge as the alternative to Fernando Torres.
So it was a case of poor timing then, when the Spanish striker's touch let him down after David Luiz's delightful chip gave him a goal-scoring opportunity, while he was denied an eighth goal in as many games again by Howard's raised left arm, pushing a swerving shot to safety.
Not that this was a case of profligacy by Torres costing Chelsea. Lampard, the reliable rescue act, turned defeat into victory and deflected talk of his own future.
"What will be, will be," he said. But if he is to depart Stamford Bridge a Premier League champion, this will be a major reason why.
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