Chelsea pulled a victory out of nowhere as Guus Hiddink showed yet again that he has an ability to get something out of the Blues’ squad that had deserted his predecessor, Jose Mourinho. Second-best early on against a Southampton team who had forgotten what it was like to lose or even concede a goal, Chelsea gradually took command and deserved the points by the final whistle .
Southampton had gone ahead just before half time when Shane Long capitalised on an error by Chelsea left back Baba Rahman, and looked good value for a likely sixth victory and seventh clean sheet in seven games. Then a misdirected cross by Cesc Fabregas turned into a goal, Southampton had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down, and Branislav Ivanovic won it with a straightforward header from a corner.
So it was Hiddink’s unbeaten record that continued, to 13 matches in domestic competition since he took over from Jose Mourinho on December 22. “I think it’s deserved,” he said. “We didn’t start well and they were dominant. We gave them a big present but I think the team reacted very well and showed that the desire is huge to get a result, a negative from a positive.”
Fraser Forster, Southampton’s England goalkeeper, set a new club record of 708 minutes without conceding a goal but may feel that he could have done better with both Chelsea goals, reacting too late to the first and getting a hand to the second but failing to keep it out.
For long spells in the first half, Southampton were the team who looked as if they wanted to win and move up to fifth place, while Chelsea seemed to have their minds on distant FA Cup and Champions League challenges, indulging in the meantime a training session aimed at keeping possession, with shooting practice postponed for another day.
Saints, attacking mainly from wide positions, were more direct and dangerous, although when they took the lead three minutes before the interval it was the result of a defensive error. Baba’s sideways header towards Ivanovic was not strong enough and Long saw it all the way, intercepted and tore into the penalty area as Courtois hesitated, lifting his shot over the goalkeeper and in.
Chelsea, though, emerged for the second half with more purpose. John Obi Mikel seemed to duck out of a heading chance from a corner by Willian and Diego Costa, annoying everyone not on Chelsea’s side as usual, got free at far post to meet Hazard cross. but volleyed high and wide with left foot.
Then came a moment that could have put the game beyond Chelsea, as Gary Cahill brought down Charlie Austin without touching the ball, but referee Martin Atkinson waved the play on, and Chelsea scored their freak equaliser after 75 minutes. Saints appealed in vain that Costa had taken the ball out of play as he chased a ball down the left, and he was allowed to play it back to Fabregas.
The Spain midfield player looked up and aimed a cross towards Hazard with his right foot that was too far in front of him but deceived Forster and dropped in. Koeman, though, absolved Forster. “It was a cross, but it’s difficult for goalkeepers with balls from the side because you expect someone will touch the ball and they didn’t,” he said.
Belief and ambition restored, Chelsea now poured forward and Ivanovic won it, thumping his header from Willian’s corner in off Forster’s outstretched right hand. “It is the first time in one and a half seasons we received a goal direct from a corner kick,” Koeman said. “Sometimes you deserve more than you get.”
The only blemish for Hiddink was an early hamstring injury to Pedro that could keep him out of the Champions League second leg tie against Paris St-Germain at Stamford Bridge on March 9, and possibly the FA Cup sixth-round tie away to Everton three days later – a gap he is unhappy about. “The players, not just Chelsea’s, need at least two days’ recovery and a third day to start work again,” he said. “We have to protect players. I’m a little bit frustrated by that.”
Southampton: (3-5-2) Forster; Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Cedric, Davis, Clasie, Romeu, Targett (Ward-Prowse, 89); Long (Pelle, 69), Austin (Mane, 79).
Chelsea: (4-2-3-1) Courtois; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Baba (Kenedy, h-t); Mikel, Farbregas; Hazard (Matic, 90), Willian, Pedro (Oscar, 7); Costa.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match: Fabregas (Chelsea)
Match rating: 7/10