After the vital, although very controversial victory over Aston Villa at the weekend, won from a penalty after a clear dive from Jay Rodriguez, despite comments to the contrary by manager Nigel Adkins who was understandably trying to protect his player, Southampton travel to Chelsea to play the game rescheduled because of Chelsea’s ill-fated participation in the World Club Championship in Japan during December. Chelsea are clear favourites for the game, and although I would be astonished, and delighted, if Saints were to come away from the game with any points on the board, it may not be as impossible a task as it appears on paper.
Since Rafa Benitez was named as the unpopular replacement to Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea’s form has been mixed. In 15 games as Chelsea boss Benitez has won nine, drawn two, and lost four, not a bad return but certainly not enough to win over the hugely sceptical Chelsea fans. Interestingly, away from home is where Benitez has done best, winning the last six of his domestic away games, having lost at West Ham in the first away game of his tenure. Those six wins include a 5-1 triumph against Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium in the third round of the F.A. Cup just last week, and this gives the clearest indication that Wednesday’s game should be incredibly one-sided. However, Chelsea have been more unconvincing at Stamford Bridge during Benitez’s brief tenure in charge, failing to score in four of those games, and surprisingly losing against Swansea and QPR in their last two at home.
These results, coupled with his previous comments about Chelsea when Liverpool manager, have reaffirmed the opinion of Blues fans that he is not the right man to manage their team, and they have very clearly let Benitez know that. This is where I believe Saints have their best chance to pull off a surprise result at Stamford Bridge. If we can sit deep and soak up the early pressure that seems likely to be put on us, the fans will begin to get on the backs of the manager, and as a result the team, perhaps leading to a lack of confidence on the pitch that Southampton can look to take advantage of, and use to counter the home team, perhaps allowing us to nick a goal that we can then try and hang on to, as seen against QPR. However, if we concede first, and early, we could be on the end of a drubbing, as seen when Aston Villa went there just before Christmas and got hammered 8-0.
Obviously, that means that a strong defensive display is vital to our chances of winning the game, but with Luke Shaw set to miss out after suffering a gashed leg at the weekend, and Jose Fonte already absent with a knee injury, I am sceptical that the players coming into the team will be able to do the job needed. Regulars Nathaniel Clyne and Maya Yoshida have looked increasingly consistent in recent weeks and appear confident and able to perform against most teams, Yoshida’s improvement particularly remarkable in the last few games given the nervous nature of his performances previously, and the criticism he received from the terraces. Clyne has been exceptional all season, and the two regulars will be required to show the way to the replacements for Shaw and Fonte on Wednesday, Jos Hooiveld, and Danny Fox.
Saturday saw the first clean sheet of the season in a game that Hooiveld started, and also his first contribution to a win for the side, and although he was our best defender last season, he has struggled to adapt to the division in the way many fans hoped he would. Hopefully he will gain confidence from Saturday’s display, and will add a difficult physical presence for either Demba Ba or Fernando Torres to get past. Danny Fox, on the other hand, has been a liability for the club this season, and the likelihood of his starting role on Wednesday raises huge concerns for me, as I’m sure it does for other Saints fans. Fox has only started one Saints win this season, the 4-1 triumph over Aston Villa at home, where he was taken off at half time when we trailed 1-0, which sums up his campaign. He has looked out of his depth defensively at this level, as many fans felt he would, having been decidedly unconvinced by his defensive displays in the Championship. If Chelsea exploit his weaknesses, we could be in for a very tough night.
Of course, we can’t just rely on sitting back in order to get a result as Chelsea will be likely to pick us off eventually, if that is our style of play, and the return of Rickie Lambert and Gaston Ramirez to the team from the F.A. Cup tie supplies us with quality going forward, that could look to trouble Chelsea’s defence if they get the opportunity. There is no doubt though, that if Chelsea play as they can do and get an early goal, they should comfortably win the game. But if we can keep them quiet until half time, and frustrate their fans, then you just never know what could happen. That said anything from the game would be a massive bonus for us.