Yet another poor display on home turf for Chelsea sees Rafa's reign come under increased scrutiny.
Considering how the match began, I'm shocked that four goals were registered. For the better part of the opening twenty minutes, I could hardly keep my eyes open. So boring were those early exchanges, with Chelsea content to move the ball laterally instead of probing the defense while Southampton chose to frantically press and retreat. It made for some dull action on the pitch, with the match really taking a quarter of an hour to come to life. That said, Chelsea's early success in this one would come undone in the most dramatic of fashions, and despite a late flurry would fail to produce the goal needed to claim all three points on offer. Once again, another sloppy performance at Stamford Bridge sees Chelsea surrender their vital game in-hand and remain in a tenuous position in the table.
The day began with the confirmation that Pep Guardiola, he of Barca and tiki-taka lore, would not be bringing his talents to Stamford Bridge next season. Queue the throngs of disappointed fans who at this juncture would love anything more than Rafa at the helm. Still, despite the news, Chelsea entered tonight's replay fixture with Southampton on a positive bounce, and team news suggested Benitez was not looking to take this match lightly even with Arsenal looming on the horizon. Gary Cahill was preferred to partner David Luiz with Branislav Ivanovic getting a well-deserved rest. Elsewhere, Frank Lampard would operate in the double pivot next to Ramires- not exactly an awe inspiring pair but perhaps the only option short of throwing Luiz into the fray. Rafa brought out the usual attacking trident and quite surprisingly put Demba Ba at the top. The results were hard to come by early, but in the 25th minute Chelsea came alive.
A hard-working Frank Lampard wriggled his way through the Soton defense on the right side of the box before laying off a pass to Dave who in turn fired his cross into the box. Waiting for the service was Mr. Ba, who dispatched a one-time crack that deflected off a hapless defender before trickling past Boruc. 1-0 Chelsea and after 20 minutes of wanting to do anything but watch this match, we had our first bit of excitement. Not to say that Chelsea hadn't been slowly improving in the prior minutes, but clearly Ba's goal was the platform to launch this game into a Chelsea victory- or so I thought. The remaining 20 minutes of the first half would see Chelsea steadily string passes together and push toward Soton's net, before a late barrage resulted in Eden Hazard's second goal in as many games. The Belgian arrived just outside the box to collect Ramires' shot that hit the crossbar before cooly placing it one-time into the side of the net. Just a brilliant finish from a player that's slowly regaining his early season form.
At the interval Chelsea retained a 2-0 lead and many if not all of us were convinced that we had enough mettle to see the next 45 minutes through without incident. Boy, were we wrong. Nigel Adkins curiously opted to keep leading scorer Ricky Lambert on the bench for the start of the match, but wasted no time introducing him to the action in the second period. Nearly two minutes after his arrival, Lambert struck gold with a precise header from a well-worked counter attack. 2-1 and that familiar feeling of awkwardness began to creep over Stamford Bridge. You could almost sense a collective groan emanating from the Shed as each successive Chelsea attempt to pry the goal open would fail. While Chelsea pursued a third goal to render the tie finished, Southampton stuck to a basic blueprint: attacking the wide areas and using pace to get crosses in behind the defense. Simple stuff really, and any manager worth his salt could and should have the resources necessary to shut that down.
Were it up to me, at 2-1, I would have gladly pulled Mata/Oscar and brought either Terry/Ivanovic on. Moving Ramires to the RW position, I'd push Luiz into midfield and kill time until the result was ours. But alas, Rafa is not your average bear. No, Rafa has to do it HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY (poor Sinatra reference, I know). Rather than tighten up the defense, Benitez was left to watch as Soton hit Chelsea on a red-hot counter attack after a free kick, with Luke Shaw delivering a brilliant cross into the area for Puncheon to hammer home. A brilliant strike that can't be faulted. 2-2, and you knew it was coming. You just did, admit it! Even at 2-2, however, there was always a chance that Chelsea could pull a last-gasp winner out of the hat and escape with the three points they so desperately needed.
That hope would vanish though the minute Rafa pulled Frank Lampard for Fernando Torres. Lamin needs to get on it and hit us with a GIF of Frank's face. That face, man. Equal parts disapproving and glum. He wasn't too pleased to be exiting and neither were the fans who serenaded Frank with applause and cheers for his efforts. That said, Fernando would enter the mix and the speculation was that perhaps Rafa would play him and Ba together for the first time. Wishful thinking, as it turns out, with Rafa putting Fernando on the right of the trident and Ba continuing to play through the middle. It almost conspired to be a glorious success, after Nando found himself with a clear path to the goal courtesy of Johnny Kills, only for his shot to drift woefully wide of the post.
In the end, Chelsea could do little about the result. Despite an onslaught of long-balls and runs behind the defense, Soton would persevere and claim a well-deserved point. The conspiracy theorist in me feels Rafa let this happen so he could hit the board for more cash to invest in new players. The realist in me admits this was yet another disappointing Chelsea performance that further underscores our inconsistency. We might have excellent talent on paper, but developing the chemistry and cohesion to unlock defenses on a regular and consistent basis remains far off on the horizon. Were it ever to change, tonight would have been a brilliant opportunity to showcase it. But perhaps we'll have to wait for the weekend, when Arsenal come to The Bridge, for Chelsea to register their first win of 2013.
A few other thoughts on today's disappointing draw:
- You have to believe that Rafa is thrilled about the Pep news. Looks like everyone that could get the Chelsea job is either employed elsewhere, has had a previous turn with the club and left on bad terms, or retired. Rafa Benitez, COME ON DOWN.
- Again, I go back to the tactics in that second half. Maybe I've played too much FIFA in the last ten years but how on earth do you not make an adjustment to secure the lead when the momentum is clearly against you? Absolutely confounding.
- Pleased to see Demba get on the scoresheet once more. He took a few outrageous chances, including a one-time volley from a brilliant Juan Mata overhead pass. When he settles in a bit, I fancy his chances to be in the top three for most goals.
- Fernando Torres is broken, the warranty has expired, and we can't get store credit for him.
- Hopefully Mata can shake off his knock in time for Arsenal and Swansea. Two vital matches ahead that beg the question: if Rafa is so intent on rotating his players, why on earth are MACAZAR playing a full 90 four days before Arsenal?
- Surprised that Terry didn't get a shout today, this would have been an ideal match for him to work on that match fitness problem. You can bet he's been sitting on the sidelines for long enough now and has just about had it with our poor home form.
- We're not winning the league this year. Perish the thought. If we had any chance, we would be a point ahead of City right now. Losing to QPR stung, but this takes the wind out of our sails.