Saturday 16th December, Stamford Bridge – Back to West London now, after two road trips to West Ham and Huddersfield. Chelsea’s opponents today: Southampton FC, fresh off a 4 – 1 home defeat to Leicester City. The game before though, Southampton managed a creditable 1 – 1 draw v Arsenal, who were in seventh place. They would not be pushovers today, by any means.
Chelsea (and Antonio Conte) were in game two of a “small ball” experiment. Even though Alvaro Morata was unavailable v Huddersfield, Michy Batshuayi was left on the bench. Today, both Michy and Alvaro were ready to play, but Conte started the same small, mobile attacking three as the previous game: Willian on the left, Pedro on the right, Eden Hazard in the center.
Mauricio Pellegrino rotated in Wesley Hoedt and Manolo Gabbiadini for Virgil van Dijk and Charlie Austin. Gary Cahill replaced Antonio Rudiger, who’d played well against Huddersfield, but maybe could have done more to prevent their late goal. N’golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko were the two midfielders in Chelsea’s 3-4-3 today, so Cesc Fabregas was on the bench second game in a row.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 7.5, Moses 7 (Zappacosta 5.5), Azpilicueta 7, Christensen 5.5, Cahill 8, Alonso 8.5, Kante 7.5, Bakayoko 7.5, Willian 8, Pedro 8 (Fabregas 7), Hazard 7.5 (Morata 6.5)
Subs Caballero, Rudiger, Zappacosta, Drinkwater, Fabregas, Morata, Batshuayi
Forster 8, Bertrand 7.5, Yoshida 8, Hoedt 7, Stephens 5.5, Soares 5.5 (Lemina 6), Romeu 6.5, Ward-Prowse 6.5, Hojbjerg 7 (Boufal 6.5), Redmond 7, Gabbiadini 5.5 (Austin 7)
Subs McCarthy, Van Dijk, Davis, Lemina, Boufal, Tadic, Austin
Chelsea pushed forward and dominated early possession, but Southampton had the first major chance of the game. Gabbiadini stole possession off Kante in midfield, and passed to Nathan Redmond, who put a through pass into the box for the overlapping Ryan Bertrand.
The ex-Chelsea left back got past Victor Moses and put a tantalizing pass right across the goal-line. Thibaut Courtois was completely stranded, but Gary Cahill (with whom Bertrand had won the Champions League five years earlier) intercepted and managed to get the ball out of danger, despite heavy pressure from James Ward-Prowse.
Chelsea almost scored six minutes later: Willian dribbled into the box from left wing and exchanged passes with Marcos Alonso, but he put his finish wide from just a few yards out. Some minutes later, Willian made a long cross from the right wing to left, but Fraser Forster stopped Marcos Alonso’s volley. Soon after that, Forster had to deal with long distance shots from both Cahill and N’golo Kante, but he saved those as well.
Hazard made a really good opportunity when he slid a diagonal pass into the box, but it was just ahead of Pedro. Willian attempted to connect with the pass, but Bertrand made a last-minute tackle to put him off his shot. On another attack, Pedro displayed tenacity and individual skill to dribble past two players into the area, but his finish was deflected onto the post and out again.
World Class Free Kick
It looked like the first half might end goalless, but two minutes into injury time Maya Yoshida decided to take one for the team, and tackled Eden Hazard from behind thirty yards out from goal.
This season, both Willian and Marcos Alonso have been world class from direct free kick situations – but this one looked just beyond their range.
Until Alonso curved a world class free kick outside Southampton’s defensive wall, inside the bottom corner of goal. Forster almost got his hand to it, but he was just a fraction of a second too late.
Southampton came out hunting for an equalizer in the second half. Chelsea withstood the pressure and did their best to double the lead, but either the opposition were defending really well, or Chelsea’s finishing wasn’t good enough this game.
Charlie Austin came in for the slightly ineffective Manolo Gabbiadini around the hour mark, and he made an instant impact. Southampton moved the ball quickly up the pitch, and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg put the perfect through ball in to take out Andreas Christensen and leave Austin one on one with Courtois. He tried to curl the ball right of the keeper, but Courtois made a good reaction save to parry it out.
A few minutes later, Hazard almost scored Chelsea’s second when he dribbled into the box, but Yoshida blocked his shot.
Antonio Conte replaced Pedro, and then five minutes later Hazard, with Fabregas and Morata respectively, and switched to a 3-5-2 to defend the lead.
Just before Morata came on for him, Hazard dinked a pass from Bakayoko in towards Fabregas, who then laid the ball back to Hazard just inside the penalty area. Hazard stroked the ball into the net, but his goal was ruled out – Fabregas had been offside when he received the ball.
A minute later Alonso drove in a volley from just outside the penalty area, but Fraser Forster saved again. Then Morata dribbled inside from the right wing and almost scored with a left-footed shot, but again Forster was there.
Sofiane Boufal replaced Hojbjerg in midfield on 72 minutes, and soon after that he repeated Hojbjerg’s trick: he put a through pass inside of Christensen, while Charlie Austin raced past him on the other side. Austin was one on one with the keeper again and attempted to slide a finish in, but Courtois closed him down and again prevented an equalizer.
Chelsea had a good shout for a penalty late on, but the referee didn’t see fit to give it. Jack Stephens pushed Fabregas as he was about to take a shot in the box. Cesc stayed on his feet, and although he mishit his shot because of the push, the ref waved play on.
Chelsea made exactly four times the shot attempts (24-6) and shots on target (8-2) that Southampton did this game. They had exactly double the corners (8-4), and Southampton committed twice as many fouls (16-8) trying to stop them from scoring.
Yet Chelsea scored just one goal the entire game; Alonso’s impossibly accurate free kick. And Charlie Austin was unfortunate not to equalize, twice. Lucky win? Maybe not. Deserved win? Maybe. But this game could just as easily have wound up a shock draw. The results of today’s striker-free experiment were, to my thinking at least, inconclusive.
Final Score Chelsea 1 – 0 Southampton
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Reuters
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