Football can be amazing at times. And frustrating. And boring. And life-affirming. We got all of those today in just 90 minutes at St Mary's as Chelsea came from behind for the first time all season to win a Premier League match and win back-to-back league matches in the process also for the first time all season. It was our 9th win of the season, to go with 9 draws and 9 defeats. Solidly mid-table, which, in fact, we are.
Guus Hiddink opted for an unchanged lineup* from the weekend's impressive 5-1 demolition of Manchester City's reserves and kids and the less than impressive 2-1 loss a few days prior in Paris. The first half performance was much closer to the latter than the former. While Chelsea controlled possession and would finish with a 2:1 edge in that regard, Southampton posed the only real threat in the first half. Shane Long, to be specific, who brought his A-game of running, heading, harrying, and being annoying, posed the only threat. And when he seized on a lazy mistake in the 42nd minute from Baba Rahman to slot past Thibaut Courtois who was a step too late, it looked like we were well on our way to a frustrating loss.
* Though that plan had to be thrown out just a handful minutes after the start as Pedro picked up a hamstring injury and had to be replaced by Oscar.
Chelsea's play in the first half was characterized by the front five failing to get on the same page on anything other than 5 yard passes, while getting almost no useful support from the fullbacks. Arms spread wide in exasperation, Cesc Fàbregas even proceeded to pass to the other team a couple times just to pad his pass completion numbers a bit. Which, in fairness, ended up quite impressive.
128 - Cesc Fabregas made 128 passes against Southampton, the most of any player in a Premier League game this season. Busy.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 27, 2016
As frustrating as the first 45 minutes were, the second 45 turned out to be equally, if not more, amazing. It didn't really look like it at first, with the script following largely the same notes as in the first, but slowly the intensity ramped up. Kenedy replaced Baba at the half and added a direct vertical dimension that was sorely missing. Diego Costa did his enforcer routine and suddenly things got emotional. Costa's "antics" will no doubt draw attention once again since he is the designated pantomime villain, but behaviours from the likes of Virgil van Dijk (especially Virgil van Dijk), Jordy Clasie, and even Ryan Bertrand's forearm should not be ignored. They will be, but they shouldn't.
Still, a breakthrough was not looking likely. Fraser Forster, vying to match a Southampton club record with his 7th consecutive clean sheet, and having already set the consecutive minutes streak for not conceding in the first half, had just about nothing to do. In fact, his first real action may have been to pick Cesc Fabregas's equalizer out of the back of his net. Cesc's first away goal of the season had plenty to do with luck and very little to do with him actually trying to score. A cross into the zone of indecision with Hazard crashing in left Forster rooted to the spot. Hazard didn't get the expected touch, but precisely because of that, the ball merrily curled into the far side of the net instead. The move itself almost never materialized, with Kenedy possibly getting away with a foul in the build-up and Costa possibly getting away with failing to keep the ball inbounds. Just a few minutes earlier, Gary Cahill possibly got away with a penalty. But that's football for ya.
So, after 75 minutes of mostly frustrating football, Chelsea were level. And then, suddenly, we were frustrated no more. Chelsea moved through the gears and the hosts were reeling. Willian came close with a daisy-cutter. Oscar blasted a powerful effort straight at the goalkeeper. Eden Hazard took on a man. It was glorious. And just as the clock was about to strike 90, Branislav Ivanović flexed his neck muscles to meet Willian's corner and rocket a header into the back of the net. Cue awkward Hiddink-Holland celebration (with a cameo from Eddie Newton and his fanny pack) on the sideline. Cue pandemonium among the Chelsea fans.
With the three points, Chelsea remain unbeaten in the league under Hiddink. Our play hasn't always looked convincing, and the less said about the first half today, the better, but the results are what matter in the end. In the worst case, at the end of the weekend, we will be just eight points behind 5th place with 11 games still to go. It might even be just seven. It looked like the run-in would be meaningless, but if we keep this up, we might just make it somewhat interesting.