Whatever Roman Abramovich's back-up was should Pep Guardiola resist his advances it surely cannot have been Plan B for Benitez. Rafa may not be keeping the Stamford Bridge dugout warm for his compatriot any more, but the Spaniard's prospects of staying on himself receded even further tonight as Chelsea let slip a two-goal lead at home to Southampton.
Coming on top of home defeats to Queen's Park Rangers and Swansea the chants of "We don't want you here" that followed the interim first team manager down the tunnel were inevitable, especially after Benitez added to the enmity towards him by replacing Frank Lampard with Fernando Torres as Chelsea sought a winner, a decision greeted with widespread boos.
Stamford Bridge's lowest crowd of the league season had been more benevolent earlier as Demba Ba and Eden Hazard scored before the break, but Southampton, beaten 5-1 at home by Chelsea in the FA Cup 11 days prior, rallied to level through Rickie Lambert and Jason Puncheon.
"We didn't take our chances, we gave them hope they could score, and they did," said Benitez. "We have to be more clinical. The next game [at home to Arsenal] has to be totally different. We have to defend better as a unit."
Benitez added that his team lacked experience to deal with the pressure after Southampton scored, but said he had not brought John Terry off the bench as the captain "was not match fit". Terry, he indicated, was unlikely to start against Arsenal.
Nigel Adkins praised his own team's growing maturity and added: "The players have improved and found ways to pick up points." He had left Gaston Ramirez and Lambert on the bench, deploying Jay Rodriguez as a lone striker and Jack Cork in a holding role. Cork joined Chelsea at nine and stayed there for 12 years captaining the youth team and reserves and playing for England at every age level from Under-16 to Under-21. But he never played once for the first team, instead being sent on loan seven times before joining Southampton in 2011. That is how difficult it is for native talent to break into the starring XI at a club such as Chelsea.
The 23-year-old looked at home as Southampton began confidently, moving the ball patiently, but gradually Chelsea began to take control in midfield and the pressure grew. Nevertheless it was still a surprise when, in the 26th minute, they broke through. A poor clearance by Steven Davis was recycled by Lampard enabling Cesar Azpilicueta to cross. Oscar beat Jos Hooiveld to the ball and Ba volleyed his flck-on past Artur Boruc.
In the final minutes of the half Chelsea, seemingly galvanised by a Davis miss, successfully upped the tempo. Sliding passes behind the Saints back four to breaking midfielders they created a series of chances and after Lampard eschewed two and Boruc clawed away a Hazard effort, Ramires hit the bar and Hazard thundered in the rebound.
Chelsea seemed home and dry, if frozen, but 10 minutes into the second period Adkins brought on Lambert and, having pushed Gary Cahill to make space he headed in with his first touch after Nathaniel Clyne beat Hazard on the flank then crossed. It was the other young English full-back, Luke Shaw, who delivered the equaliser, sprinting away from Azpiliceuta before crossing to Puncheon, who had time to tee himself up before lashing a volley past Petr Cech.
Enter Torres, on the right wing. The gamble seemed to have worked as he took a pass from Juan Mata and advanced on goal, but then he shot wide of the near post and the boos began anew.
Man of the match Schneiderlin (Southampton).
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Oliver (Northumberland).
- More about:
- Chelsea F.c.
- Frank Lampard
- Petr Cech
- Premier League
- Southampton Fc
- Stamford Bridge