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Mar 30, 2013

Benitez makes priorities clear in Saints defeat

Two weekends ago, Chelsea put in a near perfect performance against West Ham. The team played with swagger and purpose, carrying a threat every time they assumed possession.

Fast-forward a fortnight and the men in Blue were unrecognisable -- both in personnel and performance -- as they slumped to a damaging 2-1 defeat at Southampton.

- Rann: Saints give Chelsea the Blues - Benitez: Still a long road to travel

The rhythm that had been attained in the three matches against Manchester United, Steaua Bucharest and the Hammers preceding the international break has been obliterated with the side back to square one in their pursuit of Champions League qualification. The landscape in that particular race has altered once again following positive results for Chelsea's two main rivals, Tottenham and Arsenal, which earned victories over Swansea and Reading, respectively.

With those challengers expected to win, it was all the more disappointing that the match at St Mary's Stadium was approached with an attitude of disinterest. Given that the Saints have defeated Manchester City and Liverpool in recent weeks on their own patch, one would have thought that the players would have been fully prepared for a tough encounter against a progressive team. But the hosts showed a greater desire to win over the course of the 90 minutes and got the three points that they thoroughly deserved.

Given that Chelsea face a glut of games over the coming days, it was entirely expected that there might be a few alterations to the team that swept past West Ham, though the lineup selected made it clear where Rafael Benitez's priorities lie. For all the claims that a good finish in the Premier League is the priority, the seven changes that were made to the starting XI has made it plain that the manager would prefer to register some silverware this season with one eye on Monday's FA Cup replay with Man United.

Perhaps that isn't surprising seeing as Benitez knows he is not going to be at the club beyond May, yet he still has a duty to the club that pays him and that is desperate to secure a place in next season's Champions League. The fact that he failed to introduce another striker in the form of Demba Ba when chasing an equaliser made it seem that he was effectively writing off this game, which is nothing short of scandalous.

Had a win been attained, Benitez might have got out of jail, but as it was, the team was listless and directionless without Juan Mata or Eden Hazard on the team sheet. The Belgian was eventually introduced on the hour mark and there was a slight momentum shift, but the pattern had already been set, with Southampton having the wind in their sails and a cause to defend.

The players that stepped into Mata and Hazard's shoes all had games to forget. Marko Marin has been devoid of opportunities this season and did not do himself any favours with an anonymous performance. His touch was poor, his runs lacked penetration, and he perpetually hid from responsibility. On the other flank, Victor Moses was not much better. The Nigerian has an infuriating knack of slowing the game down when a degree of purpose and drive is needed. To his credit, he was always happy to receive the ball and take on defenders, yet his indecision, whether in a shooting position or potential crossing situation, undermined any positive contribution.

Meanwhile, Oscar looked completely lost, which is of little surprise. The 21-year-old is a good link player, but he is not a virtuoso in the mold of Hazard or Mata, incapable of changing a game on his own; without top quality players alongside him, he is made to look distinctly ordinary. Southampton closed the space around him, and in tandem with the lack of intelligent movement off the ball, Oscar was left stifled and neutralised.

Team selection aside, the key moment was the winning goal. That might seem obvious, but it came so quickly after John Terry had equalised that Southampton were not forced into any of the nervous, detrimental introspection that a side can indulge in when being pegged back following a promising start. Any optimism Chelsea might have gained as a result of clawing their way back into the contest was immediately dissipated, and the Saints were allowed to continue their dogged high tempo with confidence.

Having put all his eggs in one basket, Benitez must be praying that Chelsea progress to the FA Cup semifinal on Monday. Lose and he will look ridiculous, although some might say that has happened already. More importantly, however, is next Sunday's game with Sunderland, which should have three points written all over it. A week later, Tottenham come to Stamford Bridge for what is increasingly looking like a must-win game as opposed to a must-not-lose encounter. The way that Benitez is treating the league campaign, hope is dwindling that the team will succeed in either attempt.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell.