Up in the directors’ box, Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali were deep in conversation. Chelsea’s co-owners had witnessed a rare thing: a goal, a win, flashes of positivity. But it so easily could have gone in a different direction. Chelsea were a bag of nerves when they were trying to hold on to their slender lead during the dying stages and, although Graham Potter was in no position to turn down the points, he will know that his side must show far conviction at both ends of the pitch when they host Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.
In truth, this was not particularly convincing. There were a raft of defensive substitutions from Potter midway through the second half and Chelsea, who lifted the pressure on their head coach thanks to a headed winner from Wesley Fofana, did their best to throw it away. Leeds, whose relegation problems deepened here, would hit the post just before the end and the final action of the game was their goalkeeper, Illan Meslier, going close to scoring a dramatic equaliser.
Potter had appeared in his technical area straight away, urging his team on, applauding every promising moment, turning away in disappointment when Fofana nodded an early corner over. This was never going to be a stress-free afternoon. The early signs were positive for Chelsea, their pressing energetic, a flexible 3-4-2-1 system functioning well, but anxiety lurked at every turn. It was evident whenever Kalidou Koulibaly was dragged out of position in central defence and it grew the longer it stayed goalless, edginess setting in as Leeds came into the contest, the home fans responding with a smattering of boos when half-time arrived.
The frustration for Potter was that Chelsea could have buried Leeds in the first 25 minutes. They did not look like a disparate collection of individuals, even though they were missing the leadership of Thiago Silva in defence and the power of Reece James on the right flank. In fact, it was about as well as Chelsea have played under Potter. Enzo Fernández and Mateo Kovacic were sharp against Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie in midfield. Ben Chilwell drove on from left wing-back.
It was a glimpse of a brighter future. Raheem Sterling was a handful for Junior Firpo on the right and there was no sign that Leeds knew how to handle João Félix, who was buzzing with good ideas throughout, particularly when he took the breath away with a gorgeous midair flick to Chilwell.
Yet Chelsea’s struggle to turn their superiority into goals was not a surprise. After 21 minutes, Sterling burst through the midfield thicket and sent Kai Havertz through on goal. Was this the moment? Was Havertz going to produce a clinical finish? Or was a forward with two goals since Christmas going to dither and allow Meslier to make a smothering save?
No prizes for guessing correctly. But at least Chelsea were making chances. Moments later they carved Leeds open again, Sterling playing a give-and-go before bursting beyond Firpo and cutting the ball back to Félix, who sized up the angles, opened up his body and watched a gorgeous effort come back off the bar.
Potter must have wondered if his luck was ever going to turn. Soon there was an opening for Chilwell, who volleyed wide after being picked out by Fernández. Suddenly it started to feel like the same old story. The pace slowed and Leeds, who had been pretty awful, perked up.
There was a warning when Brenden Aaronson almost wriggled through. Then Crysencio Summerville drew a foul from Koulibaly on the edge of the area. Chelsea, who lost to a James Ward-Prowse free-kick when Southampton ransacked Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, must have feared the worst, only for Jack Harrison to bend this one over.
The onus was on Chelsea to lift the intensity. After all the long list of absentees did not stop them sending out a team worth over £500m. There was enough talent on the pitch and there were better signs at the start of the second half, Félix causing problems, another chance going begging when Sterling turned Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s cross over.
It was not long before Chelsea finally made their dominance count. It all felt so simple when the breakthrough arrived in the 53rd minute. Chilwell delivered a corner, Leeds forgot how to mark and Fofana lifted the tension when he rose above McKennie to head past Meslier.
Leeds had no option but to step forward and test Chelsea’s nerve. The defending hardly convinced. Adams went close, curling just wide with Kepa Arrizabalaga rooted to the spot. Georginio Rutter spurned a glorious opportunity, miskicking from six yards out.
Rutter is yet to score since joining Leeds, who lacked bite without Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo to call upon in attack. Sensing the need more urgency, Javi Gracia eventually decided to unleash Wilfried Gnonto, whose trickiness caused problems on the left.
Chelsea retreated during the dying stages. Potter tightened up, Denis Zakaria and Conor Gallagher replacing Sterling and Félix with 22 minutes to go. Kovacic, who captained the team in Silva’s absence, went off and handed the armband to Arrizabalaga. Luke Ayling would head against the post in the 90th minute. Leeds, who have two away wins in all competitions this season, could not make their late flurry count.