Sport

Premier League: Chelsea rediscover desire to win, crushing Southampton

Southampton 1-2 Chelsea

As the players congregated inside the tunnel at St Mary's before this game, the highlights of Southampton's crushing 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge last October were being rather triumphantly played on the big screens inside the stadium.

Late goals sink Southampton and Norwich

Chelsea sank Southampton on the road 2-1 while Leicester City maintain their lead at the top of the English Premier League table after a 1-0 win over Norwich.

It was a reminder of one of the biggest lows of Jose Mourinho's tenure as manager - both in the manner of defeat and his undignified post-match complaints - but what was to follow here over the next 90 minutes was to underline just how far Chelsea have since come under Guus Hiddink.

Yes, this was still a performance with plenty of flaws and a little good fortune but, in turning what was a 1-0 deficit after 74 minutes into victory, the players demonstrated how their basic spirit and desire to win has been replenished.

Chelsea players celebrate after Branislav Ivanovic scores.
Chelsea players celebrate after Branislav Ivanovic scores. Photo: Paul Harding

Against a Southampton defence that had collectively gone 637 minutes without conceding, Chelsea kept pushing, kept probing, kept niggling away at their opponents, and were ultimately rewarded by late goals from Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic.

They are now 13 domestic games unbeaten under Hiddink and, while still only 11th in the Premier League table, the gap to West Ham United in fifth has narrowed to just seven points.

"The Chelsea we want to see is one that reacts when there is a setback - we like to be proactive and show the desire is huge," said Hiddink. There was then a smile when he was asked whether he minded doing all the hard work for his successor, most likely Antonio Conte. "Yes, but I love it - I don't think I'm doing it for the next one to sit on his chair with a massive cigar," he said.

Hiddink, in any case, is far too absorbed in the here and now to worry excessively about the future and is clearly deeply frustrated by news that Chelsea's FA Cup quarter-final against Everton will take place just three days after the second leg of their Champions League tie against Paris St Germain.

Cesc Fabregas, centre left, scores for Chelsea.
Cesc Fabregas, centre left, scores for Chelsea. Photo: Paul Harding

"It's astonishing - we have to protect the players," said Hiddink. "Every club and the FA have medical departments - the doctors should stand up and say: 'FA, television, whoever, hey'."

Southampton started here with the 5-3-2 formation that Ronald Koeman has gradually introduced this season and, with Cedric and Matt Targett pushing forward from the wing-back positions, they soon established control of possession. Chelsea's rhythm was further disrupted by a first-half hamstring injury to Pedro and, with the Southampton defenders free to occasionally break forward, Virgil Van Dijk created the first clear chance, only for Shane Long to head over.

Chelsea did also threaten whenever they attacked, with Diego Costa's flick almost breaching the Southampton defence and then Eden Hazard nearly forcing a goal with a cross that was headed wide by Cedric. Fraser Forster, who set a club record in the Premier League by passing 667 minutes without conceding, also got down to save from Oscar.

Southampton, though, had been the better team and almost took the lead when Charlie Austin was afforded space by Baba Rahman on the edge of Chelsea's area but pulled his shot wide of Thibaut Courtois' near-post.

An even better chance was then gifted to Long in the 42nd minute. Baba seemed to lose his bearings completely and attempted a header back across his own penalty area. Courtois could perhaps have reacted more quickly to the mistake but his hesitancy helped Long score with a lofted finish.

Hiddink reacted by replacing Baba with Kenedy at half-time and there was no attempt to sugar-coat his decision. "I could say he was injured but you have to take decisions sometimes that can appear very harsh - I'm responsible for the general result," he said.

Chelsea were certainly more purposeful and confident throughout the second half. Hazard and John-Obi Mikel both had chances before Costa volleyed a clear opportunity high and wide. Costa's frustrations were becoming increasingly visible but the match then turned on two incidents.

Southampton had been largely waiting to strike on the counter-attack and had played Austin clear on goal, only for him to be upended by Gary Cahill.

Referee Martin Atkinson waved play on and, moments later, Costa combined with Fabregas to create space on the edge of Southampton's penalty area.

Fabregas tried to curl his cross into the path of Hazard and, with Forster moving in anticipation of a shot from the Belgian, the ball simply dissected the space between both players and nestled into the corner of the goal.

"It was a bit lucky but football is about those moments and decisions," said Koeman.

The Chelsea players rushed to retrieve the ball and duly turned their momentum into a most unlikely win when Ivanovic rose to head Willian's corner past Forster.

The Telegraph, London