Southampton 2 Chelsea 1 match report: Pochettino enjoys a less toxic inheritance than Chelsea rival
Londoners' game in hand looks more like one more burden for a side stretched too thin
If Rafael Benitez and Mauricio Pochettino compared notes on the difficulties of taking over another manager's team as they enjoyed a glass of red after Saturday's match at St Mary's, they probably concluded that Pochettino got the better deal.
Although both replaced popular managers, Pochettino has largely been accepted at Southampton since succeeding Nigel Adkins, helped by victories over Manchester City, Liverpool and now Chelsea, not to mention the lower initial expectations at a club hovering just above the bottom three. Benitez inherited from Roberto Di Matteo the Champions League winners and all the pressures, not to mention the extra fixtures, that go with them.
While Pochettino can spend all week preparing for his first meeting with Adkins at Reading next Saturday, Benitez has to lift Chelsea for today's FA Cup sixth-round replay against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, their 55th game of a lengthening season; No 56 is a Europa League match against Rubin Kazan on Thursday, with the added burden of a relationship between interim manager and supporters so toxic that Benitez must win every match to have even a slim chance of preventing the boos from raining down again as they did at Saturday's final whistle.
Benitez insists that Champions League qualification is still within Chelsea's reach despite Saturday's defeat, and he had better be right if they are to attract a successor such as Jose Mourinho in summer. But Arsenal, hot on Chelsea's heels, have no cup distractions. Tottenham, now third, are also in the Europa League and have played an extra game, yet right now Chelsea's match in hand must look more like another onerous challenge than an opportunity to reclaim third place.
Part of Chelsea's problem is that, in practice, they operate a fairly small core squad – only 14 players have reached double figures in Premier League starts – and the limitations of some of the fringe players were exposed on Saturday. It was only when Ramires and Eden Hazard came off the bench that Chelsea found the intensity that could have won them the match, which suggests that the key players are going to have to play every must-win game.
John Terry is no longer one of them. He has started only two league games since November and, although he scored at St Mary's, the abiding memory of his afternoon will be the ball twice being flicked casually over his head by Jay Rodriguez.
Pochettino sidestepped a chance to thank Adkins for leaving him a promising team when invited to do so on Match of the Day, preferring to namecheck Nicola Cortese, the chairman, instead – a nod to the political realities at St Mary's – but he may express his gratitude to his predecessor more privately next weekend.
No doubt Benitez would rather he had been bequeathed a squad with more striking power but today, and for the rest of his tenure, he must make do. "I just concentrate on what we can do, how we can improve and how we can win games – that's it," he said. "Chelsea last year were sixth. This year we are in a better position so we have to keep doing better than today, try to be in the top four."
Goals: Southampton Rodriguez 23, Lambert 35. Chelsea Terry 33. Substitutes: Southampton K Davis 7 (Boruc, h-t), Ward-Prowse 7 (Puncheon, 62), Fox (S Davis 85). Chelsea Hazard 6 (Marin, 61), Ramires (Mikel, 71), Benayoun (Oscar, 76). Booked: Sot Lambert, Schneiderlin. Che Torres. Man of the match Clyne. Match rating 7/10. Possession: Southampton 53%. Chelsea 47%. Attempts on target: Southampton 8. Chelsea 4. Referee J Moss (Tyne & Wear). Att 31,779
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