Chelsea comeback stuns Southampton as Hiddink's run continues
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three thoughts on Chelsea's 2-1 win vs. Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday.
1. Visitors earn comeback win
Chelsea completed an unlikely turnaround with two second-half goals from Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic, having lacked creativity for long periods.
It was a hugely impressive comeback that demonstrated the resilience and winning mentality Guus Hiddink has brought back to Chelsea. His side have constantly snatched points out of nothing since he took charge shortly before Christmas and he remains unbeaten in the Premier League this season.
For long periods, this was a frustrating game between two well-organised teams refusing to give one another an inch of space. It was easy to see why these were the two sides with the longest unbeaten league records going into this game: Chelsea hadn't lost this calendar year, while Southampton had six clean sheets in a row.
It was, therefore, very cagey. Set pieces played a big part in the first half and there were a succession of near-chances when both sides hopefully crossed the ball into the box, forcing the opposition centre-backs to clear the ball behind under pressure. Southampton's Cedric Soares came close to an own goal when turning the ball narrowly past his far post.
The game's three goals came out of nothing. Southampton's opener arrived after a long ball and a defensive mistake, while Chelsea equalised from a cross that drifted all the way in, then hit the winner from a corner.
2. Chelsea find a way past Forster
In the 34th minute, there was a round of applause for Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who set a club record for the longest time -- 667 minutes -- without conceding. He was unable to continue the run, however.
When Forster was eventually beaten, it was in bizarre circumstances as Fabregas' right-wing cross, which was intended for Oscar, was slightly overhit and wrong-footed the goalkeeper, ending up in the far corner.
Chelsea had rarely looked like scoring until then, primarily because of Southampton's extremely well-organised defence. Manager Ronald Koeman again deployed a 3-5-2 system, with Ryan Bertrand tucking inside as one of three centre-backs, and this approach made it difficult for Diego Costa to play his preferred game of running the channels.
The Chelsea striker endured a difficult game, summarised by a moment midway through the first half, when he dribbled at Southampton's defence but then got the ball stuck under his feet and stumbled. Costa's response, peculiarly, was to run over to the touchline and discard his protective face mask, a somewhat elaborate excuse for poor control.
He was often marked effectively by Virgil van Dijk, with whom he engaged in the type of petty running battle we've come to expect. Costa was booked for the eighth time in the league this season and also wasted Chelsea's clearest opportunity when they were 1-0 down when, on 59 minutes, he volleyed hopelessly wide from point-blank range after Oscar's beautiful cross.
Eden Hazard also continues to be wasteful in the final third, and with Pedro limping off early, Chelsea didn't have much threat from wide until a freak goal got them back into the game. From then, though, they were the better side.
Hiddink's men continued to push forward, piling on the pressure, and Ivanovic's late headed winner was typical of a defender who doubles up as an excellent penalty-box poacher.
3. Long's running causes problems
In a cautious display, Southampton's attacking threat was based entirely upon forward duo Charlie Austin and Shane Long, who ran the channels well.
Long is always mobile and excellent in wider areas, but here it was noticeable that Austin did the same, stretching Gary Cahill and Ivanovic, offering a turn of pace and testing Chelsea's offside trap.
Hiddink was nervous about his lack of a spare man at the back and ordered either Cesar Azpilicueta or Baba Rahman to tuck inside whenever Chelsea had the ball, ensuring the away side were 3-on-2.
This was peculiar to watch as often Rahman would advance, then Chelsea would look to switch the play and find Azpilicueta 30 yards behind the ball in a central area. When he did catch up, Rahman would drop back into defence.
It meant Chelsea rarely had width on both sides, which was partly why they struggled to break down Southampton. But the approach made sense defensively, although it had disastrous consequences.
Rahman was the fall guy three minutes before the break, when he attempted to head a long ball downfield to one of his defensive colleagues, but instead nodded it straight to the onrushing Long.
The Irishman's interception worked out perfectly as he knocked the ball ahead of him and used its roll to lift over Thibaut Courtois and into the far corner. It was a goal from nothing and yet somehow typical of Long: Is there a better player in the Premier League at capitalising on hopeful balls downfield?
Hiddink had little sympathy for Rahman, who was withdrawn at halftime. The attack-minded Kenedy replaced him as Chelsea pushed forward in search of a comeback.