Chelsea closed out 2013 on a high, with an impressive, momentous win over title-contending Liverpool. For the first 45 minutes of 2014 however, it looked like we'd be back to the same ol' Chelsea that we've seen far too often this season: the Chelsea of scuppered chances, the Chelsea of misplaced easy passes, the Chelsea of scraping by teams that should be swatted aside. Eight minutes into the second half that all changed thanks to a masterful double switch by Jose Mourinho that not only brought three goals (Torres, Willian, Oscar with one each) but, if we're to put any stock into the immediate reaction*, could also be the first domino falling in a sequence of events wherein annoying people will say "I told you so!" and Juan Mata will no longer be a Chelsea player.
* We probably shouldn't.
But there's plenty of time for that narrative. It most certainly shouldn't overshadow a brilliant second half from Chelsea and the same attacking trio who put Liverpool to the sword as well.
Hosts Southampton, once the glass-slippered darlings of the Premier League, may have seen their fortunes tumble back down to midtable obscurity but the South Coast greeted the new year with torrential rains, often a great equalizer between sides of dissimilar abilities let alone between Chelsea and a Southampton boasting the qualities of Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, and Luke Shaw.
Fittingly, the first half was a haphazard, low-quality, even affair, something that could've been easily avoided had Chelsea taken advantage of their house-on-fire start to the match. The Fernando Torres of the first three minutes was the same Fernando Torres of the last three minutes versus Liverpool, and he twice torched Southampton's left flank only to see his goal-bound efforts blocked. André Schürrle also got in a shot before a Southampton player head-butted his own teammate, forcing a three-minute delay in the match and taking the wind out of Chelsea's sails. Cunning move, that.
With the fans settled in and the rain teeming down, the two sides traded chances and tackles in the slippery conditions. Chelsea were content to let Southampton have the ball in non-dangerous areas, and when the Saints did manage to work an opening, they would find two or three blue shirts (one of those usually reading 'A.Cole') hurling themselves through the air to block the shots. The official count shows five blocks but it felt more like fifty. Shielded by Mikel and Ramires, the back four of Cole, Terry, Cahill, and Azpilicueta bent but never broke and in the end helped Petr Cech to his club record-tying 208th clean sheet.
At the other end, Chelsea looked dangerous on the break despite the hosts doing everything (legal or illegal) in their means to slow us down. That man, Fernando Torres again wasted his own excellent play by blazing over after a tremendous run, while a few minutes later he left it to Ramires to miss: Southampton goalkeeper Kelvin Davis rushing quickly off his line to make the excellent save on the attempted chip. Just after the half hour mark, Juan Mata and Hazard combined well to work a decent opening for Schürrle (blocked) and before the half-time whistle, Torres managed to waste one more excellent run, meekly crossing (shooting? shassing?) right into Davis's gloves with Hazard and Ramires both making timely second and third runs.
The second half started as a mirror image of the first, Southampton wasting three opportunities to score and spurring Jose Mourinho into action. Off came Juan Mata and André Schürrle - neither doing anything too wrong or too exceptional in their 53 minutes of playing time - and in came Oscar and Willian. Sunday's attacking trio now restored, Chelsea went to work.
Not two minutes had passed and Chelsea took the lead. Or ... well, they should have, but for whatever reason Oscar decided to dive over* the sprawling keeper rather than just simply finish his move of taking the ball around him. It was a baffling act to say the least, certainly not deserving of Hazard's wonderful through ball but fully deserving of Martin Atkinson's yellow card.
* Perfect form, if you're going for a double somersault off the 10-meter board
Possibly aiming to redeem himself, Oscar proceeded to turn in perhaps his best attacking performance yet in a Chelsea shirt. As the clock ticked on 60 minutes, he picked up the ball on the left flank. Working it onto his left foot, he swung in a cross that appeared to have its flight path altered by a slight deflection. Kelvin Davis was left helpless to watch it clang off the far post, then clang off the newly-found poaching talents of one Fernando Torres, and right into the back of the net. It was an odd, funny goal, but we'll take them any which way we can especially when it comes to goals scored by strikers.
Just ten minutes later Oscar was involved again, this time providing a pass that Willian smashed past the helpless keeper from the top of the box. To finish off the masterpiece, Oscar scored Chelsea's third after yet another excellent pass from Hazard put him 1-v-1 with the keeper. This time there were no shenanigans, a simple finish was all that was needed for his fifth goal of the league season. Southampton looked increasingly out of it and after the third, St. Mary's started emptying at an alarming rate. Pochettino now has just one win in his last nine.
Both Manchester City and Arsenal won, so the order at the top is unchanged: three goals and three points keep Chelsea third. Still, an impressive festive season in Mourinho's return - ten points out of twelve - have solidified our league position and have provided an excellent foundation for a serious title challenge in the second half of the season.