Ahead of their midweek meeting with the men from Monte Carlo, Chelsea, at times, showed the acumen of drunken millionaires. But it was Southampton's manager, Paul Sturrock, who was the biggest gambler, changing his side's formation, handing a debut to a callow 17-year-old (who he played out-of-position and who scored an own goal) and playing loose and fast with his team's fortunes.
A previously parsimonious Southampton were handed their biggest defeat of the season which means it's now four wins and four defeats for Sturrock who is starting to appear as a disciple of Sepp Blatter. Neither man, it seems, believes in draws.
Chelsea will also have to go for it on Wednesday, against Monaco, if they are to overturn their 3-1 deficit. Despite scoring four times, they will have to play more securely than this and are unlikely to face such reckless opponents. Nevertheless, twice at crucial moments, Southampton spurned clear opportunities. It is unlikely Monaco will be so careless. Not that Chelsea's fans seemed to care. There was a funereal atmosphere along the Fulham Broadway. Indeed, they were only roused - goals apart - by the introduction of Juan Sebastian Veron who was booed.
Still the win gave Chelsea 75 points, equal to their highest ever Premiership total. More importantly they pulled further clear of Manchester United who they meet on Saturday. They can now afford to lose at Old Trafford and still finish second for automatic qualification to the Champions' League. "A fantastic result," said head coach Claudio Ranieri, and although he admitted his side had received a little "luck", he put an understandable gloss on proceedings as he turned his attention to Monaco: "It was a good performance. Four goals and the players are in a good condition. We are ready to try. We have the final chance."
Ranieri also paid tribute to his players' "spirit" in what was their 58th game of a draining season. Frank Lampard has just about played in all of those matches and Ranieri professed himself "speechless" at the midfielder's consistency. Here he scored two goals with a predatory instinct which could be decisive against Monaco. Until those goals Chelsea had laboured. Southampton lined up with a 3-5-2 formation for the first time in three years, which was partly due to the absences from their squad. "It has been Emergency Ward 10," said Sturrock in reference to his injury list. "I thought it was appropriate to look at other players and systems." Necessity was not the mother of invention and Sturrock admitted his errors. "I have to put my hand up and take a lot of the blame," he said admirably. Sturrock threw in Martin Cranie, the captain of the England Under-18s, and it proved fatal. Within two minutes he had up-ended Jesper Gronkjaer and after that his sense of panic grew. Chelsea exploited it relentlessly - he was caught flat-footed to allow a Gronkjaer shot, was then dispossessed for Eidur Gudjohnsen to shoot narrowly wide and, out-of-position again, induced team-mate Danny Higginbotham into a rash challenge on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink which probably should have conceded a penalty.
The flood was stemmed by Darren Kenton. Time and again the young defender's interceptions proved crucial, first crunching into a tackle on Joe Cole and then jumping with Gudjohnsen to divert a header. Southampton fed on scraps but Carlo Cudicini, back after missing 11 games with a broken hand, was fortunate to escape when he clumsily spilled James Beattie's free-kick. At the other end Antti Niemi saved brilliantly from Cole's half-volley and in the second half, the goalkeeper produced an even better stop to deny Gudjohnsen.
Hasselbaink, dallying, was again dispossessed by Kenton before the contest's key passage. A poor header by John Terry allowed in Kevin Phillips but he lifted the ball into Cudicini's arms. Straight away a Chelsea corner was headed into his own net, at the near post, by Cranie under pressure from Gudjohnsen. It was his last act. Sturrock withdrew him and went for broke with two wingers. His reasoning was that a defeat was a defeat no matter how heavy. Patience would have been more profitable against a nervy Chelsea.
However, it almost worked when substitute Brett Ormerod stole in after another woeful defensive header. Cudicini quickly smothered from three yards. Immediately Gudjohnsen broke away. Once again there was a superb Kenton tackle before the ball ran to Lampard who swept it, in one movement, into the net. After Kenton departed injured, Southampton collapsed.
Niemi pushed Hasselbaink's cross-shot straight to Lampard who, again, clipped the ball in. The scoring was not complete. Gudjohnsen turned provider and his reverse pass was thumped in by Glen Johnson. Hopefully, not all their luck has been spent in one throw.
Chelsea 4 Southampton 0
Cranie og 59, Lampard 75, 83, Johnson 85
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 41,321Reuse content