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Southampton 2-1 Chelsea: Saints See Off Blues As Rafa Puts Cups First
Chelsea dropped down to 4th place in the Premier League as they suffered a 2-1 defeat to relegation-fighting Southampton.
The goals came in a 15-minute deluge at St. Mary’s with Jay Rodriguez opening the scoring with a clinical finish on 23 minutes. John Terry -starting his first league game for nearly two months- then levelled for the Blues 10 minutes later heading in from a corner, but Ricky Lambert’s brilliant free-kick put the Saints back in front moments later.
Chelsea’s hopes of clinching a precious Champions League spot in the Premier League took a severe dent as Tottenham’s win at Swansea saw them leap-frog the Blues into third, whilst wins for Arsenal and Everton keep the pressure on in the hunt for European qualification.
Rafael Benitez made seven changes to his starting XI; the Spaniard clearly keeping a mindful eye on the two cup fixtures within four days of each other. Chelsea host Manchester United on Easter Monday in their FA Cup quarter final replay, whilst the Blues also have a tricky Europa League tie against Rubin Kazan on Thursday. With the league title all but certain to cross Manchester to Old Trafford come May, Benitez is keen not to finish the season empty handed. Ryan Bertrand, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and Terry were some of those drafted in at the expense of Ashely Cole, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and David Luiz.
Despite the 24 points that separated these teams before kick-off, the Saints started the better team, looking hungry and determined while their opponents sauntered out of the traps. Rodriguez almost single-handedly took the lead when some fine skill on the half-way line took him away from his marker before a powerful run through the middle took him within sight of goal. Fortunately for the Blues, the striker’s effort was weak and Petr Cech was untroubled.
The Saints, backed by a roaring crowd, sought the opener and Lambert’s effort was blocked by Branislav Ivanovich but the South-coast side were soon ahead. Rodriguez’s quick one-two with Stephen Davis on the edge of the area put the young Englishman in on goal and there was nothing Cech could do to keep it out.
Chelsea thought they had equalised when Fernando Torres turned the ball in but the ‘goal’ was chalked off for handball. However the visitors were soon level when Terry was afforded the space to convert a simple header from a corner. The Blues had been handed a lifeline that they hadn’t done enough to deserve, however rather than capitalise on their fortune they saw their opponents regain the lead.
A precise, curling free-kick from Lambert left Cech at full reach but the ‘keeper could not keep the English striker’s effort out. Lambert is currently the Premier League’s highest scoring Englishman, this one his 14th of the campaign and the Saints faithful let their feelings known regarding Lambert’s failure to win a cap with such status, chanting “Lambert for England”.
Chelsea had been second best for most of the first 45 minutes and it seemed there was nothing even a half-time team talk could do to spark Chelsea into a higher gear. Southampton made a goalkeeping change at the break, with Artur Boruc reportedly admitting to dizziness and so replaced by Kelvin Davis. But even the disruption to the Saints back-line could not aid Chelsea in their search for an equaliser.
Davis’ first significant contribution was to keep out a Moses shot on the hour-mark and despite Chelsea beginning to come into the game in the second-half Davis went largely untroubled until the closing stages.
In between Southampton remained a threat, and the home fans will be most impressed with both the endeavour on show and the quality of football, particularly on the break. Rodriguez had a chance to double his goal tally when, having evaded Ivanovich on the left, fired towards goal only for Cech to save well.
With the clock ticking away and any hopes of a point disappearing before them, Hazard and Ramires were introduced but even the Belgian winger who has been so impressive in his debut Premier League season, could not rouse his teammates to save themselves from defeat.
The Saints clinched a much deserved victory and a vital one as they seek to move away from the relegation vacuum that would suck them into trouble. Whilst Southampton’s performance was brave, Chelsea’s display on the other hand lacked passion.
Despite changes to the starting line-up, there was more than enough quality in the team to get something from the game and certain senior players must take responsibility for a poor all-round showing. Benitez will come into criticism for prioritising cup-competitions but the Blues should have enough strength within their squad to battle on three-fronts. If the squad players that came in on Saturday can’t perform, then perhaps Chelsea need to figure out which would mean more to them: a pot in the trophy cabinet, or Champions League qualification.
If you haven’t seen the goals yet or want to relive the action you can watch video highlights here.
What do Chelsea fans make of Rafa’s decision to field a weakened team? Get involved in the comments section below.