Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and Diego Costa all returned to the starting line-up and all three found the net to extend our lead to seven points ahead of Spurs’ midweek fixture which follows 24 hours later.
His first of two he scored in the game was a landmark goal for Diego Costa – his 50th in the Premier League – and was the third on the night, scored in the second half. Hazard had begun the goals very early in the game but it needed Cahill, back from illness, to restore the lead on the stroke of half-time after Oriol Romeu had equalised. The best goal of the game, Diego Costa’s second to make it 4-1, came almost as close to the final whistle but there was still time for Ryan Bertrand to head a second of the night for the Saints.
Cahill now has seven goals for the season while Hazard’s 15th in the Premier League makes this his best return in this competition. It was not Chelsea at our very best tonight, but coming so soon after our FA Cup semi-final success it was good enough, and now four wins from five remaining league games are needed to make sure.
Prior to Hazard’s opener, there was an early moment of concern when Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz misread each other’s intention in our penalty area but the visitors from the south coast were unable to capitalise. There was also a smartly worked free-kick from them which Jack Stephens could have made more of, but although those were an early warning of problems Southampton would continue to pose, it did not take long at all for the Blues to take the lead impressively.
The opening goal came with just five minutes on the clock and it was simplicity itself as today’s front three linked to great effect. It was Cesc Fabregas with the ball forward to Diego Costa who had made a good run and was patience personified in picking out Hazard. The runner-up in Sunday’s PFA Player of the Year Awards shot low, as he so often does, and he unerringly found the far side of the Shed End net.
Fabregas had been given a place on the right of the front three in preference to Pedro or Willian and was central to much of our play early on.
It was the start we wanted but the follow-up minutes were steady rather than spectacular, and Hazard and Fabregas had to retreat deep into the Chelsea half to help out with the defending on the odd occasion. The counter-attacking potential was always there and Hazard could have had a second goal on 17 minutes but this time he did put height on his shot and curled it over.
Just past the midway point in the first half, the Saints levelled the scores from a corner. The ball in had skimmed off the head of Nemanja Matic on its way to Manolo Gabbiadini beyond the far post. The Italian shot at Thibaut Courtois and although he could not beat our keeper from that angle, the ball was marginally diverted to Romeu who could not miss in front of goal. The Premier League run without a clean sheet extends to 11 games.
The Saints goal appeared to take the wind out of the Chelsea performance for a time but we defended a James Ward-Prowse free-kick better than the earlier corner; the crowd tried to raise the team and they responded. N’Golo Kante with a penetrating run had much to do with it and the pressure stayed on until Matic, making his 150th appearance, was not too far away from a second long-range goal in four days. There had a been a shout for a Chelsea penalty for a challenge on Diego Costa too.
Kante was booked for a late tackle on Ward-Prowse shortly before there was another scare for the Blues from a Saints set-piece. With our next counter-attack, Hazard opted to pick out a colleague rather than shoot two minutes before the break but did not reach his target.
We did however win one more corner before the half-time whistle. The Saints cleared initially but Kante floated the ball to the far post where Marcos Alonso sent it back into the danger zone. Diego Costa shaped for an overhead kick but Cahill had spotted the possibility and nothing was going to stop the England defender. He charged at the crowd and powered his header past Fraser Forster.
Fabregas was an early second-half booking for a foul on Romeu but it was not long before the Spaniard made a much more positive contribution. The old Fabregas-Diego Costa link was reconnected and the result was our centre-forward’s first goal in eight Chelsea games – a falling header around about the penalty spot after fending off Bertrand.
Romeu was carded for a reciprocal foul on Fabregas and Tadic followed into the book for chucking the ball down in response to a decision. Alonso and Diego Costa both had shots that were relatively straightforward for Forster so it was not until 80 minutes had passed that the Saints’ keeper was properly tested again. He made a good save from Kante after Hazard had orchestrated another break from our half.
Substitute Pedro and Matic fizzed low shots wide in the closing minutes but a real late highlight was the introduction of John Terry, his first appearance since announcing his imminent departure.
The roar when he came on almost matched the one for Diego Costa’s superb goal that soon followed, a work of the passing art as he played one-twos with first Hazard then Pedro before slotting home.
Bertrand with a header became the second ex-Chelsea player to find the net but Southampton’s second goal had come far too late to cause any great tension around Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses (Terry 86), Kante, Matic, Alonso; Fabregas (Pedro 76) Diego Costa, Hazard (Willian 89)
Unused subs Begovic, Ake, Chalobah, Batshuayi.
Scorers Hazard 5, Cahill 45+1, Diego Costa 53, 89.
Booked Kante 40, Fabregas 49
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Soares, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand; Romeu, Davis (c); Ward-Prowse (Long 82), Tadic, Boufal (Redmond 68), Gabbiadini (Rodriguez 86).
Unused subs Hassan, Caceres, Hojbjerg, Clasie.
Scorers Romeu 24, Bertrand 90+4
Booked Romeu 60, Tadic 73.
Referee Lee Mason