For the second consecutive week Chelsea went to the top of the Premier League, and there they will remain for another day at least after Aston Villa fell to Blackburn last night. The feeling continues to grow that in a season of moderate skill their well-stocked squad may possess the worldliness necessary to see it through.
Yet, it is also becoming increasingly clear that they will need every gem in their apparent embarrassment of riches. There were again several enforced absences yesterday - Dennis Wise and Franck Leboeuf through suspension, Marcel Desailly through injury, Graeme Le Saux because his wife gave birth to a daughter on Christmas Day - and Gustavo Poyet had to leave the field midway through the second half.
The Uruguayan was the recipient of a pretty unsavoury tackle from Southampton's new French full-back, Patrick Colleter. It struck the knee which kept Poyet out for most of last season and even in a team where places are inter- changeable he would be greatly missed. As the Chelsea coach, Graham Rix, put it later, Gustavo is at present on fire.
He scored the second of Chelsea's goals, his 11th of the season, which all but brought proceedings to an end two minutes into the second half. It stemmed from Petrescu's cross which the goalkeeper Paul Jones parried somewhat lamely in Poyet's direction.
After a sterile opening to the contest, Chelsea took the lead in the 21st minute. It was a goal preceded by several delicate touches which glaringly exposed Southampton's defensive fragility.
Jody Morris found Gianfranco Zola down the left, the Italian drifted inside and, if this disconcerted the defence, his chip-cum-dink split it. The pass fell directly into the path of, Tore Andre Flo who, fortunately, given his tendency throughout the afternoon to scuff the turf or find the stands, did not have to break stride.
Southampton are now back in the old routine. For most of their two decades in the Championship they have flirted with relegation before finally slapping it in the face. Last year's mid-table position was a mere aberration. They are up against it but they have a confident, untroubled manager in Dave Jones and experience of past escapes suggests no reason they should not extract themselves from the mire again. Whether that is to the long- term benefit of the Premiership may be another question, though it certainly makes for an eerie fascination each spring.
Jones saw some good things in the Southampton performance yesterday but he must have been looking especially hard. He was more to the point observing that while Chelsea managed to string five or six passes together on occasions, Southampton could never muster more than one or two. It was neither an attractive match nor an accomplished one but it is the sort that Chelsea, now unbeaten in 17 league matches, need to win.Reuse content