MATCH REPORT: CHELSEA 2 SOUTHAMPTON 2
Chelsea failed to make the most of our game in hand by letting a two-goal half-time lead slip.
On a freezing night at Stamford Bridge, it was a performance that never managed to catch fire but after Demba Ba hit his first goal in front of the home fans and Eden Hazard rifled in a second goal, the three points looked secure. But substitute Rickie Lambert was able to head the visitors back into the match soon after the interval, and a powerful finish by Jason Puncheon punctured Chelsea hopes with quarter of an hour left to play.
Gary Cahill returned from paternity leave with Branislav Ivanovic the player making way. David Luiz was again in defence and there was just one further change - Oscar coming in for Ryan Bertrand. Frank Lampard and Ramires continued as the two deeper central midfielders.
Southampton, as they did in our FA Cup meeting, preferred Jay Rodriguez to Rickie Lambert in attack. Jos Hooiveld replaced injured captain Jose Fonte in defence. Nathaniel Clyne was right-back so Jack Cork moved in to midfield with James Ward-Prowse making way.
In the end it didn't prove the case but at the start of this game, scoring the first goal looked to be the key to avoiding nights like the ones against QPR and Swansea earlier this month. Chelsea's first move of note came on four minutes. Hazard hurdled a challenge to set the side on the attack, Ba continuing the advance with a ball into the box that eventually came the way of Oscar - but the Brazilian's connection was not clean and his shot was stabbed wide.
Then on nine minutes, following a typical Ramires burst upfield, Ba again fired the ball low into the box and our current hot striker, Mr Own-Goal, almost added to his recent tally but the ball bounced wide after striking a Saints defender.
It was a tame opening to the game however, and there was a hint of a threat from the visitors on quarter of an hour when Puncheon got above Ashley Cole to head a cross but he couldn't trouble Cech.
Creativity was at a premium at this stage and instead it was endeavour from Lampard that gave birth to the opening goal on 24 minutes. The captain on the night kept the ball and drove forward despite plenty of close attention on the right of the penalty area. He passed back into space behind and Azpilicueta hit a cross that Oscar had to fight hard to knock on. Demba Ba was there and reacted quickly under challenge to sweep the ball home from 15 yards out.
Without adding to the advantage, Chelsea were now largely in control, although Southampton had a chance on 36 minutes, after good hold-up play by Rodriguez. Davis dragged his shot wide when he should have at least been on-target.
In the five minutes before the interval Chelsea sprang into life. Twice there were shooting chances for Lampard; the first after a lovely move was blocked by a defender and with the second, when Mata opened the Saints up on the right, he shot wide.
Hazard was not far away from turning a loose ball in moments later but the Blues had the scent of blood in their nostrils. Ramires picked up another blocked shot on the edge of the area and cracked a shot against the post. Hazard picked the ball up from a similar distance out and smashed it past Artur Boruc for his second goal in two games. It was right on the stroke of half-time. We had breathing space as the teams went down the tunnel to regroup.
With no sign of Southampton getting back into the game, Saints manager Nigel Adkins swapped his strikers, bringing Rickie Lambert on for Jay Rodriguez. It took the substitute just three minutes to find the net.
Right-back Clyne broke free of a tackle by Hazard out on the flank and crossed towards the penalty spot. Lambert, following a possible push on Cahill, was able to head powerfully beyond Cech to reduce the deficit to a single goal once again.
Chelsea responded with pressure on the Saints goal and on 67 minutes Ba let Mata's long chip forward fall over his shoulder but then volleyed over the bar. He had turned a promising ball into a clear chance, but ultimately couldn't supply what would have been a difficult finish.
The next attempt was from a free-kick after Mata had been fouled painfully by Yoshida. Lampard struck it with David Luiz the other option in waiting and with the keeper rooted, the attempt bent a couple of yards off-target.
The Saints levelled the match on 74 minutes, Puncheon powerfully beating Cech from just inside the box. The defence had failed to clear after full-back Luke Shaw had won a race with Azpilicueta and sent the ball across. Puncheon was unmarked, but it needed a quality strike to beat Cech.
Now the pressure was firmly back on the home side. Torres came on for Lampard with 11 minutes to play and went into a wide-right role with Oscar dropping deeper.
The Spaniard shot wide of the near post with five minutes remaining after he had done what looked the harder part of the job, tricking his way past centre-back Hooiveld after Mata's clever supply.
That was the last clear opening of the game. There was brief hope of a penalty after Cahill collided with a defender but it was an optimistic shout. Southampton were tested with high balls into their area in stoppage time, but there were enough red shirts to block when the ball did fall our way.
Despite the imperious away form, it is now three home games without a win at Stamford Bridge. We are now six points behind second-place Manchester City.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Cahill, David Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Lampard (c) (Torres 79); Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Ba.
Unused subs Turnbull, Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Bertrand, Marin.
Scorers Ba 25, Hazard 45.
Booked David Luiz 84.
Southampton (4-1-4-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw; Cork; Puncheon, S Davis (Chaplow 66), Schneiderlin (c), Do Prado (Ramirez 73); Rodriguez (Lambert 54).
Unused subs: K Davis, Fox, Ward-Prowse, Seaborne.
Scorers Lambert 57, Puncheon 74.
Referee Michael Oliver.