Chelsea 3 Southampton 1
It was Jose Mourinho’s inspirational qualities and man-management skills that were expected to push Chelsea into title contention this season following an emotional return to west London; but a come-from-behind victory over Southampton suggests his tactical knowledge may be the more important factor in a Stamford Bridge revival that is now steady but significant.
Victory has left Chelsea second in the table, four points behind Arsenal with highly winnable games against Sunderland, Stoke and Crystal Palace next on the agenda. Although they have not yet hit top form — and Mourinho refuses to even discuss winning the title - Arsene Wenger knows there will be a serious challenge from across London come the end of the season.
What is encouraging for Chelsea fans is that although their team went behind after only 13
seconds yesterday - an awful back-pass from Michael Essien and a cool finish from Jay Rodriguez — they had enough about them to weather the storm and turn the match around in the second half thanks to a tactical switch from their manager.
The arrival of Ba in place of Essien for the second half, and a switch to 4-4-2, put Southampton on the back foot and set up a dramatic 10-minute spell in which Cahill stooped to score with a twisting header after Ba had hit the post from a Mata corner — before Terry, playing his 400th game for the club, flashed another header high into the net, again from a Mata cross.
“It was a good performance collectively,” said Mourinho. “We deserved the three points in a match that we knew was crucial because three title contenders lost points before us.
“It’s the sign of a team that’s going step by step, understanding my ideas and mentality, adapting progressively, feeling the responsibility that Chelsea cannot be in December completely out of the title race. They must feel the responsibility to play for Chelsea and that was a sign of maturity. Losing after 10 seconds, keep calm, let’s go.”
That Chelsea were able to regain control, however, and eventually secure three points was in a large part down to Mourinho’s changes.
“We were losing. We were not producing enough. And my feeling was not to wait until the end of the game, but give the opponent a new problem immediately,” he said.
The game was sealed in the 90th minute when Ba cleverly prodded home a third for Chelsea after excellent work from Ramires; and Southampton, who had seen goalkeeper Artur Boruc go off with an injured hand earlier in the match, had to come to terms with back-to-back defeats, having also lost at Arsenal last weekend.
“We’re the youngest team in the Premier League, so we’ll learn over the course of the season,” insisted manager Mauricio Pochettino. “We won at Liverpool, drew at Manchester United, and have now lost at Arsenal and Chelsea, but we’re still learning.”
Earlier in the evening it would have been hard to envisage the final outcome because Pochettino’s team performed excellently in the first half, with Victor Wanyama dominating midfield and Luke Shaw regularly hurting Chelsea with athletic and forceful runs down the left flank. The Saints needed only four passes and 13 seconds to go ahead following Essien’s terrible lobbed back-pass — not a way for the Ghanaian to celebrate his first league start for Chelsea in 19 months.
But Boruc had to make two excellent saves from Torres and Oscar to keep his side ahead. Chelsea’s response in the end was forthright and convincing; even if Mourinho was surprisingly coy about talking up their title chances.
“If there are six title contenders and four Champions League spots then the first objective must be to be in the top four, which is important for the prestige and economical situation at the club. But in this league, lose two matches and you’ll go down to seventh or eighth.”
That observation is honest and frank but not quite as bullish, brash or braze as we have been used to in the past and not in the mould of the Mourinho who won two league titles at Chelsea in his first spell here.
Perhaps it’s a sign that the manager as well as the players at Stamford Bridge are learning maturity — and that Mourinho’s tactics off the pitch are now just as flexible as those on it.
CHELSEA: Cech 6, Ivanovic 7, Cahill 7, Terry 7, Azpilicueta 6, Essien 5 (Ba 46; 7), Ramires 6, Oscar 6 (Lampard 42; 7), Hazard 6, Mata 8, Torres 7 (Mikel 84).
SOUTHAMPTON: Boruc 7 (Gazzaniga 58; 6), Clyne 7, Fonte 7, Lovren 6, Shaw 7, Schneiderlin 7 (Lambert 67; 6), Wanyama 7, Ward-Prowse 6 (Davis 63; 6), Lallana 6, Osvaldo 6, Rodriguez 6.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved