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Antonio Conte reflects on a tale of two halves, explains Rüdiger absence

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What a difference a goal makes

Southampton v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images

Chelsea’s 2-3 win over Southampton at St. Mary’s may have made a piece of club history, but it was scarcely a performance for the ages.

The first half (and the first 15 minutes of the second half) were dire. Chelsea had plenty of possession but looked toothless, as they have so many times since New Year. In danger of relegation, Southampton came out fighting, out-muscled Chelsea and pressured with energy and commitment. Not surprisingly, Antonio Conte was less than pleased at the half, down 1-0.

The second half was a carbon copy of the first and when Jan Bednarek put Soton up 2-0 in the 60th minute very few people would have bet on Chelsea to get any kind of a result.

Conte immediately made a double switch and a change of formation, bringing on Olivier Giroud and Pedro to replace Morata and Zappacosta respectively, hence reverting to a four-man back line. When Giroud subsequently scored on a beautiful header on a cross from Alonso just ten minutes later, the match was transformed.

The effect on Southampton, who are on a rotten run of results, was dramatic. They went into their shell, couldn’t clear the ball away and more or less invited Chelsea to keep the pressure on. To their credit, the Blues RSVP’d posthaste.

Playing in a match like this, where the stakes for Chelsea were between low and non-existent (given how long the odds are of catching Tottenham for fourth place,) becomes a test of character and will to win. The Chelsea manager thinks he saw the right stuff in his men when they were challenged.

Conte now has a pleasant dilemma at centre-forward. Morata had scored in two of three matches going into Saturday, but he looked ineffective against Southampton’s aggressive tactics and was reverting to his early-season petulance. Chelsea were galvanized by Conte’s formation change and the presence of the far more physical Giroud, who bagged a brace for his first Chelsea goals. As has happened before since his arrival at the end of January, the team looked more settled with Giroud winning battles and providing a focal point for the attack.

But Conte wouldn’t be drawn on who he sees as his first choice striker.

Eyebrows were raised when Antonio Rudiger was not only left off the starting eleven but also the bench. Conte didn’t say he was injured, just that he made a tactical decision.

And as for the great controversy of the match, when Marcos Alonso raked his studs down Shane Long’s calf in a dangerous challenge and the cry went up for a red card, Conte pleads ignorance.

The retrospective panel might have the last word on that. A ban would be bad news for Chelsea with the FA Cup semi-final coming up next Sunday against these same Saints.

Until then, though, Conte must feel some relief that his players still have some fight left in them. When Southampton showed a weakness, Chelsea went for the jugular and banged in three goals in nine minutes. That’s a killer instinct we’d like to see more of, please.