If you take away the first 13 seconds, today's match against Southampton looked like a procession. Granted, we don't get to do that sort of thing (and I'm not even sure we'd want to, so pleasing was the quality on display in fighting back from a 1-0 deficit), but the Saints are one of the better teams in the league and apart from an early blunder, Chelsea ground them into dust.
Remember that Mauricio Pochettino's side boasted the best defence in the Premier League coming into this game. They'd conceded seven goals in twelve games, an incredible figure when one considers where they were this time last year. Only high-flying Arsenal had had much success against them, and even they only managed to put two goals past the Saints at the Emirates. Three goals -- and it could easily have been more -- is an impressive achievement.
And it was necessary thanks to that catastrophe of a start. Jose Mourinho had talked about the need to ring in changes following the 1-0 loss at Basel, and rotation manifested itself in the form of starting berths for Juan Mata and Michael Essien. Although Mata would have his say in the second half, the first belonged to Essien, and not in a good way.
Ten seconds in, the Bison seized upon a bouncing ball in his own half and attempted to scoop it backwards for Petr Cech to clear. Unfortunately, the weighting was completely off, leaving the goalkeeper stranded and the ball lofted into the space just ahead of the penalty box. There lurked Jay Rodriguez, and the striker was on hand to race onto the pass and slot home.
The goal had taken 13 seconds. Strangely, Jose Mourinho's Chelsea had been on the receiving end of a 13-second strike against these same opponents, and perhaps as a result of that there was no sense of panic. Yes, the Blues were down a goal, but apart from that, they were playing some decent stuff. Artur Boruc did excellently to deny Fernando Torres after a Mata pass, and Torres had earlier done some good work on the wing to pick out Oscar in the middle only for the Brazilian to nod straight at the goalkeeper.
Oscar had an excuse, however -- he'd gone down with what looked like an ankle injury just after the thirty-minute mark and was bravely hobbling along until Lampard got ready. Chelsea's leading goalscorer was introduced before the half was out. Essien would follow Oscar to the changing rooms at the interval*, having added a yellow card (for diving, of all things) to his list of sins. Demba Ba came on in his place, the Blues switching to a 4-4-2.
*Which was marked by a stirring address from John Paton, Chelsea's oldest living player.
The more direct game worked wonders. Southampton's defence had been tested intermittently before the break, but now it was under real pressure, and although they had their moments in the second half the Saints were also having trouble building from the back as effectively. As a result, the visitors ended up spending a lot of time in their own half.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea looked more dangerous as a result, and they reaped the rewards. A pair of corner kicks proved to be Southampton's undoing. The first was a bit of a mess. Mata floated in a deep cross (his near-post deliveries had been awful, it should be noted) which was met with no little force by Branislav Ivanovic. His shot was going wide, but Ba got a foot to the ball and diverted it onto the post. Both John Terry and Gary Cahill threw themselves at the rebound while the Saints froze up, and it was the latter who get the goal with an acrobatic header.
Losing their lead wasn't the only piece of bad news for Southampton -- they lost their goalkeeper as well. Boruc managed to get himself entangled in the side netting while trying to keep out Ba's initial attempt, and somehow picked up an injury as he strained for the Cahill header. Pablo Gazzaniga came on in his place, but he couldn't match the Poland international's quality in goal.
Chelsea soon found a way past the substitute. Another corner was sent deep, and although the visitors managed to partially clear, the ball was worked back to Mata on the left flank. His swerving cross was perfectly place for Terry to attack, and the captain's glancing header was unstoppable, flying across Gazzaniga and into the top corner. It was a fine way for the skipper to mark his 400th Premier League game.
In the space of seven second-half minutes, the Blues had gone from 1-0 down to 2-1 up, and all of the momentum was in their favour. The Saints still could barely get out of their own half, and their vaunted defence was being carved open more or less at will, with Mata and Eden Hazard the primary architects. Chelsea had so many opportunities to kill off the game that it began to get a bit worrying that they hadn't done so -- Ba in particular was guilty of a glaring miss when one on one with Gazzaniga -- but with Southampton completely impotent going forward, a one-goal lead felt relatively secure.
Then, just as the ninety minutes were up, Ba and Ramires combined to make sure of things. Ramires, whose tireless running had paid off spectacularly in the second half, used his legs to good effect once more, wriggling his way through Southampton's midfield and down the left channel. He lost the ball temporarily, but regained it just in time to send a low cross in to Ba, who ghosted past Jose Fonte and flicked in at the near post.
4-1 didn't look like a particularly unlikely score at that point, given that there were six minutes of injury time, but Chelsea settled for what they had. The three points, combined with Liverpool's strange loss against Hull City, means that the Blues are all alone in second place. They're still four points behind Arsenal, but at least they're keeping pace.
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