We opened 2014 in a similar manner to how we ended 2013, producing an impressive performance to secure an important three points at St Mary’s as second half goals from Fernando Torres, Willian and Oscar gave us a 3-0 win against Southampton.
The Blues dominated the early part of the game, but as chances for Torres, Andre Schurrle and Ramires all went begging, the home side came back into the contest and threatened in the final third, with Ashley Cole making two crucial blocks.
Torres broke the deadlock on the hour when he converted from close range after Oscar’s cross had rebounded invitingly into his path, and soon after we extended our lead through the substitute Willian, who finished brilliantly from outside the box.
The second goal had given Southampton a mountain to climb in the closing stages of the game, and with gaps inevitably appearing as they looked to find a way back in, we scored a third on the break eight minutes from time when Oscar raced on to an Eden Hazard pass and finished in style.
The result also saw Petr Cech equal Peter Bonetti’s club record of 208 clean sheets in all competitions, rounding off a perfect day on the south coast.
It’s four wins from five over the festive period for Jose Mourinho’s side and we can now look forward to an FA Cup third round clash at Derby County on Sunday.
Mourinho made six changes to the side which beat Liverpool on Sunday, unsurprisingly given the nature of the festive schedule, with Cole making his first league start since the 2-0 defeat at Newcastle in November, coming in for the injured Branislav Ivanovic. Ramires returned to the side following his one-match suspension, while there were also starts for Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle and Torres. Frank Lampard missed the game after picking up an injury against Liverpool and David Luiz was suspended.
The two teams came into the game in contrasting fortunes, with Chelsea buoyed by Sunday’s win over Liverpool, while Southampton were looking to rectify a run of just one win in eight Premier League matches.
It was the Blues who threatened first as a Dejan Lovren pass went astray inside his own half; Mata picked up possession and fed Torres, whose cross narrowly evaded Schurrle at the far post.
It was a positive start from Mourinho’s side who were on the front foot early on, and a minute later we almost broke the deadlock. Ramires released Torres, who feinted one way and then the other up against Lovren and Jose Fonte. The Spaniard fired left-footed towards goal but the slightest deflection took it inches wide of Kelvin Davis’s post.
Having conceded in the opening minute of the corresponding fixture a month ago, it appeared we were eager to ensure there was no repeat, and after Torres’s cross, intended for Hazard, was cut out, Schurrle then went close with a strike from the edge of the box as the home side struggled to deal with the subsequent corner.
Hazard, such a threat from the left-hand side for much of the season, started the game operating through the middle, with Mata wide on the right and Schurrle on the left, but it was Ramires, advancing from deep, who was next to go close as he attempted to latch on to a Torres flick. To his credit, Davis read the situation well and was quick off his line to thwart the midfielder.
The Saints had struggled to impose themselves on proceedings during the opening 15 minutes but their first attack of any note was almost a fruitful one. Adam Lallana picked the ball up on the left-hand side of the Chelsea penalty area and, as he drove inside, he exchanged passes with Gaston Ramirez; a drop of the shoulder took him away from Gary Cahill but fortunately Cole was on hand to make the block as he got his shot away.
Despite the atrocious weather conditions, with rain and wind battering the stadium, the game was developing into an entertaining spectacle.
Torres had started well for the Blues and the striker was unlucky not to open the scoring in the 20th minute when he fizzed one inches over Davis’s bar after a fine piece of skill out wide had taken him away from two defenders, while at the other end Cole did brilliantly to take the ball away from the feet of Jay Rodriguez as he brought a Ramirez pass out of the air and looked set to score.
Mauricio Pocchtino’s side were gradually becoming more of an attacking threat, and Cesar Azpilicueta was forced into a wonderful block to deny Lallana as he arrived in the box to meet a Calum Chambers delivery, with the hosts looking to steal the initiative.
Just after the half-hour mark, however, it was Chelsea again going close as Davis tipped a fantastic strike by Ramires over the bar after a jinking run by the Brazilian had seen him take three Southampton defenders out of the game. It really was a marvellous piece of skill and, had it found the back of the net, would have been a goal fit to grace any occasion.
With half-time looming, we threatened again following a quick break, but with Hazard and Ramires calling for the ball at the back post Torres’s cross was comfortable for Davis.
Mourinho opted not to make any changes to personnel at the break, but only seven minutes into the second half he made a double substitution, replacing Mata and Schurrle with Oscar and Willian.
It was a decision which almost paid instant dividends as Hazard slipped a delightful ball into the path of Oscar, who nudged the ball around Davis and went down under the challenge of the Saints ‘keeper. With the away supporters packed in behind the goal screaming for a penalty there appeared to be only one outcome, but Martin Atkinson felt the substitute had gone to ground too easily and produced a yellow card.
It was a decision which proved to be no more than a brief reprieve for the home side, though, as moments later we took the lead.
Oscar, who had been heavily involved since coming on, received the ball just outside the area and swung his cross towards the far post, but as the flight of the delivery took it beyond Davis, the ball bounced back off the foot of the post to an unmarked Torres who gratefully nodded in from close range.
It was the Spaniard’s third league goal of the campaign, but more significantly one that gave us a crucial advantage in what was developing into an extremely tight encounter.
The introduction of Oscar and Willian appeared to be making a difference, with the Brazilian duo providing energy and pace in the final third, and moments later they combined to double our advantage.
Oscar was once again the creator, laying the ball back into the path of Willian just outside the penalty area, but with plenty of work still to do, he took one touch before shifting to the right and dispatching a curling strike into the bottom corner, leaving Davis clutching at thin air.
The importance of the second goal couldn’t be understated, with the Blues able to navigate the final 19 minutes with a two-goal cushion, and with the home side chasing the game better was to come eight minutes from time.
We were seeing plenty of the ball as we looked to close the game out comfortably, and as Ramires played the ball into the feet of Hazard, who seemingly had little on, the Belgian displayed great awareness to release Oscar with one clever flick, and as the Chelsea number 11 raced through on goal he showed great composure to pick his spot and fire the ball past Davis.
It was a goal which ended any hopes the home side harboured of finding a way back into the game, and though Lallana went close with a left-footed curler late on, we were good value for the victory.
It’s been a fine festive period, and as the travelling faithful sung ‘Jingle Bells’ on their way to the exits the players celebrated out on a rain-lashed pitch, aware that another difficult test had been overcome.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry (c), Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Schurrle (Willian 52), Mata (Oscar 52), Hazard (Essien 84); Torres.
Unused substitutes: Schwarzer, Kalas, Essien, Oscar, Willian, Ba, Eto’o.
Scorers Torres 60, Willian 71, Oscar 82
Booked Oscar 54
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Davis; Chambers, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw (Clyne h/t); Cork (Lambert 60), Schneiderlin; Rodriguez, Davis (Ward-Prowse 75), Lallana (c); Ramirez.
Subs: Yoshida,Gazzaniga, Hooiveld, Gallagher.
Booked Ramirez 46, Cork 51, Lovren 62
Referee Martin Atkinson