Rafael Benitez gambled on his team selection yesterday and the gamble did not pay off. With more than an eye on tomorrow's FA Cup sixth-round replay against Manchester United, the Chelsea interim manager fielded a team well below full strength and may not only have dropped three points at St Mary's but also lost the initiative in the race for Champions League places. Tottenham Hotspur overtook his temporary charges yesterday, while fifth-placed Arsenal closed to within two points, and although Chelsea have a game in hand on Spurs, a fearsomely-crowded fixture list may nullify that advantage – after United visit Stamford Bridge, Chelsea entertain Rubin Kazan in the Europa League on Thursday.
Yesterday Benitez made seven changes to the team that had started Chelsea's previous game, against West Ham United, with only the absences of Gary Cahill (knee) and Juan Mata (illness) enforced, and the result was a sluggish first-half performance. John Terry, making a rare league start, cancelled out Jay Rodriguez' opener, but Rickie Lambert celebrated his 500th league appearance and a two-year contract extension with the winner, and although Chelsea improved after the break, the damage was done and Chelsea had taken only one point from their past four away league matches.
However, Benitez denied that he had sacrificed the league campaign in pursuit of an FA Cup semi-final. "I still have confidence that we can finish in the top four and win one or two trophies,"he said. "We still have a lot of games in the league. I said it a month ago, but it will go right until the end. We cannot change [the fixtures] – just play the games and try and manage the squad."
Benitez must have known that Southampton, these days, are not a team he could afford to take lightly. This marked a hat-trick of wins for Mauricio Pochettino over contenders, the scalp of the Champions League winners added to those of Manchester City and Liverpool. The Argentinian went one better than the draw Nigel Adkins managed at Stamford Bridge in his last game in charge of Southampton – and much better than the 5-1 defeat suffered by Saints in the FA Cup tie between the teams here in January.
"Victories like that confirm we're on the right path," Pochettino said. "It's very important for the confidence of my players, and the people in the club, the technical staff. It's important we can believe we can achieve results as we did today, and can do so in the future."
Southampton tore into the visitors from the first whistle, barely missing the injured Adam Lallana. Chelsea looked ponderous in midfield and Southampton cut through time and again while former Chelsea youth team captain Jack Cork patrolled in front of the defence. Jay Rodriguez set the tone when he flicked the ball over Terry's head and ran at the remaining defenders, spoiling it all with an underhit shot that rolled gently into Cech's arms.
It was just the first of many chances that came Southampton's way. Jason Puncheon, Nathaniel Clyne and Lambert all threatened before Rodriguez finished a move whose pace dizzied the defence, taking Steven Davis's deft return pass and rolling the ball calmly beyond Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech and into the corner of the net.
Southampton relaxed for a second, and Fernando Torres had what would have been an instant equaliser disallowed for a handling offence before Terry escaped Jos Hooiveld to head home unopposed from Marko Marin's corner, but Chelsea were not level for long. Branislav Ivanovic fouled Lambert 25 yards out, and Southampton's top scorer picked himself up to flight the free kick over Torres in the wall and high past the right hand of the diving Cech.
Chelsea improved after the interval and Victor Moses saw a deflected shot finger-tipped over by Kelvin Davis, who replaced Artur Boruc at half-time after the goalkeeper had been taken ill, Moses claimed a penalty as Maya Yoshida barged him over but in vain, and then tried to beat one man too many, and Frank Lampard could not get in a shot from six yards. Benitez threw on Eden Hazard, Ramires and Yossi Benayoun in an attempt to rescue the result, but all he got was boos from the 3,000 travelling fans, and sympathy from Pochettino, who called him "one of the best managers in the world."
Benitez added: "In the first half we didn't have the intensity we were expecting. We improved a lot in the second half, created more chances, but still didn't make the right decisions in the final third. At least we were there and had the chances. Now we have to carry on and concentrate on Monday, then think about Thursday and then Sunderland at home. That is the way. You have to be ready for the next challenge."
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