Rotation leaves Benitez with egg on his face
Southampton 2 Chelsea 1
The trouble with trying to keep so many plates spinning is the danger that all of them could come crashing down at once. At the start of a crucial eight days for Chelsea, Rafael Benitez's decision to prioritise tomorrow's FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United by resting key players backfired spectacularly as his side became Southampton's third big scalp of the season.
The fate of Manchester City and Liverpool might have told Benitez that you underestimate Southampton at your peril at St Mary's, and he could have few complaints after his side lost to a team whose enterprise and unstinting work ethic belied their lowly league position.
Having now pulled off back-to-back victories against more exalted opposition, Southampton have taken a giant step towards Premier League safety and could soon be in the happy position of having nothing to play for. Not so Chelsea, who, after their Cup showdown tomorrow, have a Europa League tie against Rubin Kazan to contend with on Thursday before they return to Premier League action against Sunderland next Sunday.
Should they prevail over United, Benitez may well consider that his changes were justified yesterday as five players from the side who beat West Ham a fortnight ago were dropped to the bench. The absence of Gary Cahill and Juan Mata, who was suffering from a virus, was enforced. But the defeat means Chelsea now drop to fourth place behind Tottenham, and with Arsenal breathing down their necks just two points behind, the battle for the fourth Champions League spot looks as if it will go to the wire. Chelsea cannot afford many more slip-ups.
Playing with a confidence born out of their 3-1 victory over Liverpool, Southampton were much the brighter and more creative, led by the talismanic Ricky Lambert, who gave a tireless performance from start to finish. The pattern of the match was set from the early exchanges, and Lambert should really have put his side in front in the ninth minute when he humiliated John Terry, who was starting his first Premier League match since February, with a sublime piece of skill that left him with acres of space in front of Petr Cech's goal. The moment was spoiled, however, by Lambert's tame shot straight at the Chelsea goalkeeper when a pass to the unmarked Jason Puncheon might have been more fruitful.
Puncheon went close himself when he wriggled through a crowded penalty area, though Cech was alert to danger and did well to block his shot.
With Southampton's slick passing causing Chelsea all sorts of problems at the back, the home side got their reward in the 23rd minute after an exquisite move that was started by Lambert before Jay Rodriguez exchanged a neat one-two with Steve Davis on the edge of the box to prise open the defence and then shoot powerfully past Cech. Two minutes later Fernando Torres had the ball in the net after outpacing Jos Hooiveld, though referee Jon Moss correctly spotted that he had used his arm to knock the ball past the defender.
But there was no doubt about Chelsea's 33rd minute equaliser – a point-blank header from Terry after he rose unchallenged to meet Marko Marin's corner. The goal was more than Chelsea deserved, and a stunned St Mary's crowd must have been wondering whether one defensive lapse would undo all the good work of the first half-hour, though it took less than two minutes for justice to be restored. Lambert, a persistent handful for the Chelsea back-line, was pushed illegally by Branislav Ivanovic and, from the resulting free-kick, the Southampton forward scored his 14th goal of the season when he curled the ball beyond Cech from 30 yards.
The substitution of Yossi Benayoun for Oscar in the 76th minute was the prelude to some vile anti-Benitez abuse by the travelling fans which he chose not to comment on when asked about it after the match.