Flawless Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 to Saint”s unbeaten home run
Hull, Leicester, Manchester United, and now Southampton. That's not a trivial run of games by any means, but Chelsea have made it look easy. Since the loss at Arsenal, the numbers have been stunning: 11 goals scored, zero conceded, four wins from four games. And despite that sequence including a giggle-inducing 4-0 pasting inflicted on Jose Mourinho, the 2-0 win at St. Mary's today might have been the most impressive of the lot.
Consider this: no team other than the Blues have beaten Southampton at home this year. Not so far this season, this year. Chelsea's 2-1 victory last February had an air of good fortune about it, and since then the Saints have been on an extremely strong run. They knocked off both Liverpool and Manchester City during the run-in last year, and they only came close to losing twice during that stretch. This is a ground and a fixture that inspires concern.
Except, apparently, for Antonio Conte, who saw his Chelsea side score early and then merrily strangle the life of their hosts. During the 3-4-3's three previous league matches, the Blues used their new shape to dominate possession and batter their opponents. Here, forced to absorb and diffuse constant pressure, they faced a different kind of test, and to say they passed with flying colours would be giving colours too much credit.
They were aided, of course, by that early lead. This time, the start wasn't quite as fast as the 30-second hilarity which greeted United last Sunday, but Eden Hazard's opener was impressively rapid nonetheless. Given their first chance to drive at the heart of Southampton's midfield, Chelsea sprung into gear, with Hazard finding Victor Moses on the right flank before making a darting run inside the area.
One of Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis was meant to be tracking the Belgian, but neither accepted responsibility, giving Hazard the opening he needed. The hapless, Davis, racing back too late, was dispatched through an easy shimmy, a move which left only Fraser Forster between Hazard and the lead. The poor goalkeeper was then ritually humiliated with a nutmeg so thumping that it actually bounced off the back of the net and returned into play. Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
The Saints' reacted well to going 1-0 down, and might have clawed their way back into the match through Charlie Austin, who took advantage of slack marking on a free kick to get an open sight of Thibaut Courtois' goal but directed his header implausibly wide. And it was another free kick which led to Southampton's lone shot on target, Dusan Tadic beating the wall from the right channel and drawing a straightforward save.
The hosts' vague threat on set pieces belied their complete inability to carve out an opening from the run of play. Southampton were seeing plenty of the ball in deep areas and on the wings, but simply couldn't force a meaningful attack through the massed banks of blue shirts. Instead of being tempted to go chasing after possession, Chelsea kept their shape superbly, patiently relying on the Saints' forward forays to collapse under their own weight. It might have been nerve-wracking if it didn't look so straightforward.
Claude Puel's side were denuded of attacking talent in the summer transfer window, which made the job a little easier, but the astounding ease with which Blues made Nathan Redmond and friends look totally impotent was the story of the match. Chelsea were able to give up the lion's share of possession without ever having to worry about Southampton scoring, and while their first-half attacking output wasn't much to write about, it was enough to see them into the break with a lead.
That lead would have been more comfortable had Diego Costa not spurned a glorious chance just before the half. Nemanja Matic, adventuring upfield, took Jordie Clasie by surprise deep in Saints territory, releasing a quick through ball that set Costa in on goal. The striker tried to replicate Hazard's earlier finish, albeit from further out, but this time Forster did enough to kick the shot to safety. Chelsea would have to settle for a one-goal cushion.
With Southampton's attack having been relentlessly crushed, it seemed as safe a 1-0 lead as anyone was likely to see, but that wasn't enough for Antonio Conte, who pushed his side higher up the pitch to begin the second half. The Blues flowed forward, and would have been rewarded three minutes in if not for a desperate intervention from Jose Fonte, who smuggled Marcos Alonso's teasing cross to safety before Hazard could tap in.
Alonso wasted an opening through poor decision-making shortly thereafter, opting to shoot despite three Chelsea teammates working their way into more threatening positions, but the Blues — and more specifically Diego Costa — would not be denied.
A quick free kick taken 40-yards out seemed to be going nowhere when Hazard laid the ball off to the Premier League's leading scorer, but Cuco Martina refused to engage, standing off and inviting a long-range effort. Costa responded with an immaculate shot, unleashing a drive which bent just inside Fraser Forster's far post, easily beating the big goalkeeper. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
At 2-0, the match was more or less won, but that didn't stop the Blues from pursuing a heftier scoreline. Just before the hour mark, Costa nearly found his way onto the scoresheet for a second time, but proved unable to keep Hazard's sharply-struck cross down. He then contrived to waste an even better opportunity to make it 3-0, somehow turning an open goal into a useless pass to Pedro, who was quickly crowded out.
Fortunately any extra buffer was unnecessary. The Saints were just as quiet in the second half as in the first. Austin skied a half-chance well over with 20 minutes to play, and the closest the hosts came to causing Courtois any stress was when Davis bounced a header off David Luiz's curly mane and onto the top of the crossbar.
Southampton did have the ball in the back of the net late on, but Austin's effort was rightly (thought tightly) ruled out for offside, and Chelsea never again gave their hosts even false hope. Against a side who'd been unbeaten on home turf for more than six months, the Blues had trundled their way to an easy victory. There will be further tests to come, but it's difficult to overstate just how emphatically Conte's side passed this one.