Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was accused of playing mind games in advance of this match by insisting that Manchester City were favourites to win the Premier League title, and he maintains that stance. But he showed on Wednesday that he has tactical as well as psychological weapons at his disposal after a double substitution that turned a potentially tricky encounter decisively in Chelsea’s favour and ensured that they did not lose ground on City or Arsenal.
Seven minutes into the second half, with Southampton giving as good as they were getting, Mourinho introduced Oscar and Willian in place of Juan Mata and André Schürrle. Mata, Chelsea’s player of the season for the past two campaigns, pounded the bench in obvious frustration, but Mourinho’s decision was vindicated in some style as Oscar created two goals – one for Willian – and scored the other himself.
“The plan worked,” Mourinho said. “Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it does. This match was difficult. You need to work a lot to play against Southampton. We started very well. Normally after five minutes we would have one, two-nil, but we didn’t and we had to defend some difficult moments. Willian and Oscar gave a different intensity and we finished the game in a comfortable way.”
Mourinho claimed he had not witnessed Mata’s reaction, and said that he wanted the Spain playmaker to stay at Stamford Bridge, although he also said that ‘my door is always open’ if players want to discuss their futures. “I think his frustration was that we had to win and when he came off, the team was losing two points. At the end everyone was happy in the dressing room so I have to believe that.”
The other negative was a yellow card for a dive by Oscar, which Mourinho admitted had been correctly shown by Martin Atkinson, the referee. “He deserved the card,” Mourinho said. “Normally he’s a very fair, clean player. Atkinson did very, very well. Hopefully now other referees follow and can kill this [diving] situation.”
In a way, it reinforced Mourinho’s point about Manchester City’s strength relative to that of Chelsea that he had to bring on Oscar and Willian to win a game that looked anybody’s up to then. “I know next summer will be an opportunity for some buys to improve our team,” he said. “Now we are trying to bring these young players to a different level. But we are not candidates [to win the title]. We are always candidates to win the next match but no more than that.”
On the plus side, Chelsea won on a ground where City settled for a draw last month, and they began strongly despite facing an icy monsoon, but Fernando Torres shot over with only Kelvin Davis to beat, and Davis tipped Ramires’ shot over the bar following the Brazilian’s ambitious dribble.
Not that Chelsea were having things their own way. Ashley Cole had to block an effort by Adam Lallana and intervene again as Jay Rodriguez lined up a shot. Cesar Azpilicueta had to stretch to deny Lallana, as did Gary Cahill as Jose Fonte shot from close in, helping Petr Cech equal Peter Bonetti’s Chelsea record of 208 clean sheets in all competitions.
After 53 minutes, Mourinho made his double substitution, and it seemed that it had paid off immediately when Eden Hazard’s sublime through pass put Oscar in on Davis. But the Brazilian dived as Davis challenged and was booked. “He was waiting for a contact that didn’t come,” Mourinho said.
Oscar, though, made up for that lapse on the hour, his deflected cross from the left looping over Davis and off the foot of the far upright. Torres’s reflexes were lightning-quick as he dived to head in the rebound, the first away league goal by a Chelsea forward since 8 December 2012.
After 71 minutes, Oscar rolled a perfect pass to fellow substitute Willian, who was in space 18 yards out and shot low past Davis’s left hand, and Oscar sealed the victory with eight minutes remaining, timing his run onto Hazard’s pass perfectly, staying onside and drilling the ball past Davis.
Southampton have now won only once in nine games. Manager Mauricio Pochettino said: “We’ve been playing and suffering against top sides. We’re a young team and we’re still learning. And it’s important that we keep believing.”
Southampton (4-3-3): K Davis 6; Chambers 6, Fonte 7, Lovren 6, Shaw 6; S Davis 6, Cork 6, Schneiderlin 6; Ramirez 7, Rodriguez 5, Lallana 7.
Substitutes: Clyne 7 (Shaw ht), Lambert (Cork 60), Ward-Prowse (S Davis 76)
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech 6; Azpilicueta 7, Cahill 7, Terry 6, Cole 6; Ramires 7, Mikel 8; Mata 6, Hazard 8, Schurrle 5; Torres 7.
Substitutes: Oscar 8 (Mata 53), Willian 7 (Schurrle 53), Essien (Hazard 85)
Referee: M Atkinson,
Man of the match: Hazard.
Match rating: 8/10