Friday 15 December 2017

Saints come alive to deepen Benitez blues

Chelsea 2 Southampton 2

Paul Kelso

An evening that began with good news from Germany for Rafael Benitez ended in cold comfort at home as Chelsea tossed away a 2-0 lead to be held to a draw by Southampton.

The result, coming after successive defeats here to QPR and Swansea, leaves Chelsea six points behind Manchester City in third, and only two clear of Tottenham in fourth.

Benitez's position at the Bridge appeared to have been strengthened by Pep Guardiola's decision to go to Bayern Munich, but his side failings undermined him once more.

First-half goals from Demba Ba and Eden Hazard appeared to have secured a comfortable win against a side fighting relegation, but Southampton rallied splendidly.

Goals from Rickie Lambert, left out of the starting team, and a fine equaliser from Jason Puncheon snatched a point, and left Stamford Bridge fuming.

Roman Abramovich was not the only one left to ponder the future after Pep Guardiola's decision to reject the Russian's overtures in favour of Bayern Munich.


While the owner pondered Guardiola's decision from his sunlounger in St Bart's, Chelsea fans who have harangued their interim manager for the crime of being Benitez also seemed lost in thought on a bitter night at Stamford Bridge.

Originally postponed because of Chelsea's involvement in the Club World Cup, the game was rearranged only after the FA Cup tie between the sides 11 days ago ended in a 5-1 win for the Londoners.

That may have explained the empty seats around the Bridge, but the significance of the game also seemed to have paled in light of the bulletin from Bavaria relayed three hours before kick-off. Guardiola's appointment may also explain the absence of venom from the stands.

The last time Benitez appeared here was amid the poisonous aftermath of the Capital One Cup defeat to Swansea. His return to the technical area, the other side of a 4-0 win at Stoke, was far more peaceful.

There were some stifled boos for Fernando Torres, consigned to the bench in favour of Ba and the usual 16th-minute tribute to Roberto Di Matteo.

But for the manager, not a murmur. Perhaps the Chelsea fans realise they may have to get used to him.

Southampton arrived here having lost only twice in their last 11 league games, but manager Nigel Adkins' selection was not exactly brimming with intent. Top scorer Lambert and Gaston Ramirez were both on the bench, and a five-man midfield was deployed to stifle a Chelsea side featuring its most attacking front four. Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar were all deployed behind Ba, with Frank Lampard continuing his pursuit of Chelsea's goal record in the captain's armband.

Lampard had a crucial role in the first goal after 26 minutes. When Stephen Davis half-cleared the ball from Southampton's box, Lampard recycled it expertly in the right-hand corner of the pitch and fed Cesar Azpilicueta, whose cross caused chaos in the box.

It was touched away from Oscar at the near post by Jos Hooiveld, but the ball dropped to Ba, who volleyed in from 12 yards as he fell. It was a third goal in four games since joining Chelsea, an eloquent application for a regular place ahead of Torres.

Chelsea turned up the pressure and, after Lampard scuffed the sort of chance from 18 yards that has brought him many of his 194, Hazard ended the half with a splendid second for the home side.

The Belgian began the move with a dissecting ball to play in Oscar in the inside-right channel. His cross fell to Ramires, who smacked a shot against the bar.

The rebound fell to Hazard, who steered the ball home first time on the volley with his left.

Adkins responded by sending on Lambert 10 minutes into the second half, and within three minutes, with practically his first touch, the forward had scored his 10th goal of the season.

Nathaniel Clyne brushed off Hazard on the right flank and his curling cross was expertly headed home by Lambert. The goal brought Lambert level with Jermain Defoe as the top-scoring Englishman in the Premier League.

The goal gave a somnolent Stamford Bridge the jitters, though Lampard went close to goal 195 with a free-kick from the edge of the box that made the Matthew Harding Stand hold its breath.

They held nothing back three minutes later as Puncheon volleyed home expertly from the edge of the Chelsea box after an excellent run and cross by Luke Shaw.

The boos might have been heard in Bavaria. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

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