I've always wondered about the phrase 'game in hand'. It's supposed to be a good thing, of course: Chelsea have a game in hand on their rivals, which means that they might finish Wednesday three points further ahead of the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (and three closer to Manchester City). But -- and to inflict upon you the same confusion that my brain goes through whenever it hears about games in hand -- a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
Which is to say that we shouldn't be feeling too good about this game in hand business until we've actually won it. Which we can, tomorrow. Said game is, on paper, one of the most straightforward fixtures of the season: Southampton at home. But the three points aren't in the bag yet, and if our recent performances at Stamford Bridge are anything to go by, there should be some doubt as to whether they'll arrive at all.
Chelsea's home form under Rafa Benitez has been enormously schiziophrenic. After a pair of draws to kick off his tenure which I suspect were designed to make us feel as though we were living in footballing purgatory, we've done things like beat Nordsjaelland 6-1 and gave Aston Villa the most hilarious thumping in that club's storied history. The Blues have also contrived to lose at home to the worst side in the league and then followed that one up with a League Cup semifinal defeat against Swansea City.
Away from home, things have been far more serene. Second-half meltdown at Upton Park aside (remember how good the Blues looked for the first 45 minutes? Neither does anyone else), away results under Benitez have been excellent. The contract is stark: Chelsea have won five points in four matches at home since Roberto di Matteo got the chop compared to 12 in five on the road.
Several theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain this disparity, and at the moment the media darling is the hugely amusing conceit that the Stamford Bridge's crowd is creating a football-skills-sapping aura of negativity around the place with their anti-Benitez protests. This is, of course, total tosh -- the travelling supporters have been just as negative (perhaps more so, in fact), and Chelsea have won big at home under their new as well as lose embarrassingly.
Benitez himself has put forward a far more plausible hypothesis:
We are doing very well away, but at home the other teams wait deep and we have less space. We are still creating chances but we have to be more clinical. If we score goals and take our chances it will be completely different because the other team will be more open, but if that's not the case, like it has been in the last two games, it becomes more difficult.
The idea is that this team is very good at killing off opponents but perhaps less strong at landing the first blow, which is why we get this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde business. But that doesn't take into account the series of impressive comebacks the Blues have staged on the road. They've overcome deficits at Elland Road, St. Mary's and most impressively at Goodison Park. Facing teams who are defending a 1-0 advantage doesn't seem to have been problematic for Chelsea away from home.
The answer, to my mind, is luck. Pure, simple randomness. We've played a couple of poor games at home with some shock results. That's not a trend. It's just a thing. Should we be any more scared of Southampton after the QPR and Swansea City upsets? Only fractionally (thanks Rev. Bayes!).
But the general thought presented in Benitez's passage above applies. Chelsea will have to break down a team that's come to SW6 praying for a point. They'll be as defensive as possible -- knowing Southampton, that's not particularly defensive -- and see if they can grab a goal via the counterattack. That's a formula that we know pretty well, but we should have the firepower to break them down here.
With Demba Ba starting the cavalcade of giggles that was weekend's match against Stoke, expect Fernando Torres in his place today. That makes us a less potent attack threat, and if Benitez opts to rest his key players ahead of Arsenal's visit, we could be in for a bit of a fight to score. Hopefully Chelsea will come out with their big players in an attempt to establish an early lead and then get the stars their rest later. Points against the Saints are worth just as much as those against more illustrious opponents, after all.
Oriol Romeu is out long-term, obviously, and both Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel are off at the Africa Cup of Nations. In happier news, Petr Cech and John Terry have returned to the squad following their injuries and Gary Cahill will be available once again for selection. With all four senior centre backs available, David Luiz might be pushed into midfield once more.
For Southampton, left back Luke Shaw, a rumoured Chelsea target whom we met in the FA Cup a few games ago, could be absent with injury, while the dangerous Adam Lallana remains sidelined, as does centre back Jose Fonte.
Date/Time: Wednesday, January 16th; 7:45 pm GMT (2:45 pm EST). Thursday, January 17th; 1:15 am IST.
Venue: Stamford Bridge, London.
Television Info: Fox Soccer Plus (USA), ESPN (India).
Watch online: Fox Soccer 2 Go (USA).