Melchiot strikes up Strachan swansong

Southampton 0 Chelsea 1

Jason Burt
Sunday 23 November 2003 01:00

In his programme notes Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, was waxing biblical - 1 Kings: 21, since you ask, the story of Naboth and how his vineyard was coveted by Ahab. As the parable was being used to describe Leeds United's interest in Gordon Strachan - in this context the Second Coming for the Yorkshire club's former captain - it had more than a whiff of sour grapes. Still Rupert will be able to bear it although things were a little sour yesterday as his club was comfortably defeated, despite the slender margin, by a Chelsea side showing formidable resilience and championship momentum. Claude Makelele was simply outstanding, closely followed by Frank Lampard and although their manager, Claudio Ranieri, said he "suffered a lot" near the end - with Kevin Phillips perpetrating an astonishing miss - the result confirmed Chelsea as "the third force" in English football.

Despite the loss, Strachan will still leave Southampton in rude health although the limitations of his legacy were, on occasions, obvious as were the parameters of his post-match press conference. He simply refused to countenance any questions on his future. That said it all. He is surely going. "The most important thing today was my team," he said huffily after suggesting that they deserved more despite depletions with James Beattie - a calf injury - sorely missed. Southampton simply did not have enough height or weight without him and were undone by a "right bad goal", according to Strachan. If it was his last game it was clearly a frustrating experience.

For his part Lowe spoke afterwards insisting he had not had any approach, following his comments that Leeds were effectively guilty of making an illegal approach. "It's only speculation although the drum beats continue," he said. Lowe is applying his business background, of course. The noises coming from the former City financier are similar to those made when Glenn Hoddle left two years ago with £1m compensation in lieu. Leeds are trying to offer half that, arguing Strachan has just seven months left on his contract. Despite sitting together for the first half a gulf has clearly developed between chairman and manager.

Strachan's desire to depart - Wales' Mark Hughes is touted as replacement - has caused puzzlement. The emotional pull of returning to his former club, now in such ruinous straits, goes so far. Maybe he is more in the know that others over the expected cash to come from the would-be investor Sheikh Abdul Mubarrak Al-Khalifa. There is also, perhaps, the thought that Southampton are themselves limited. Strachan, it is rumoured, is frustrated by Lowe's hard-headedness. Indeed despite their best-ever start to a Premiership season the shortcomings of Strachan's squad and, arguably, his tactics, have been exposed at times.

Goals are at a premium. Southampton share the best defensive record - eight conceded in 13 games - with Manchester United but have also not scored in seven of their last nine matches. They are undoubtedly better when underdogs and this was the kind of fixture - against one of the big three - which inspires. Chelsea were protecting a run of six consecutive victories and enjoyed the luxury of resting players who had travelled furthest on international duty. Indeed just four of Ranieri's summer signings started and it was one of those, Damien Duff, playing at the tip of the midfield diamond, who exchanged passes with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink after breaking from deep. His shot screwed wide.

The narrow formation exposed Mario Melchiot at right-back and Graeme Le Saux, against his former club, provided ample support for the 18-year-old Leandre Griffit, who, in his first start, shot wide. Earlier Phillips had twice struck the side-netting. In truth the game drifted - the half-time score from Elland Road (Leeds two down) provided the biggest cheer. "Bland" was Ranieri's verdict.

Two minutes into the second half and it picked up as Melchiot found redemption. He played the ball to Lampard, who quickly fed it on to Hasselbaink. Melchiot had continued his run and picked his way around a static Le Saux. As the ball was returned to him he calmly slid it right-footed across Antti Niemi and into the net. It was coolly constructed and dispatched and Southampton were dampened. The goal allowed Chelsea to spring on the counter.

Southampton pushed but were too often thwarted by the formidably metronomic Makelele. Duff scooted along the left and his dangerous low cross was almost turned in inadvertently by Danny Higginbotham. Seconds later and Rory Delap poked the ball from Lampard's toe as he shaped to shoot six yards out.

Strachan had to act and did so with a triple substitution - including the appearance of Agustin Delgado, the wayward Ecuadorean striker whose time at Southampton has taken on Lord Lucan parallels. "With Tino, when the ball comes into the box he comes alive... every two years," said Strachan of the injury-prone player's undoubted prowess.

Could Southampton, to continue their chairman's analogy, do a Lazarus? That seemed to crystallise as Fabrice Fernandes cut inside and crossed to the far post. Phillips was there, four yards out and unmarked but he headed across rather than into the goal. It was a bad, bad miss. Fernandes then grazed the crossbar from distance and even Niemi joined the attack. The moment had a finality to it, as if this was indeed Strachan's last hurrah.

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