A spirited late recovery, inspired by substitute Olivier Giroud, turned a 2-0 deficit into three points as the Blues returned to winning ways in the Premier League’s first game of the weekend.
Travelling to the South Coast to take on the relegation-haunted Saints had looked a golden opportunity to put recent set-backs behind us, but that looked far from the case when Mark Hughes’ side took a first-half lead through Dusan Tadic and then doubled it on the hour when defender Jan Bednarek, making his Premier League debut in place of suspended Jack Stephens, scored but a superb header from Giroud made it game on and Eden Hazard equalised from close range soon after.
It was Giroud who completed the turnaround. He had already scored a late equaliser at that end of St Mary’s for Arsenal this season, and this time he drilled in a sweetly struck winner to send the Blues fans behind the goal into raptures.
For the start of the game, Antonio Conte made two changes from the side that drew at home the previous weekend. One was at wing-back with David Zappacosta replacing Victor Moses, and the other was in the middle of the back three with Andreas Christensen returning and Gary Cahill moving back to the left in place of Toni Rudiger.
Spring had arrived in Hampshire and in the lunchtime sun, it was Chelsea who made the better start against a Saints side which had not won any of their previous eight home games.
Cesc Fabregas was finding time on the ball and it was he who gave Alvaro Morata the chance to chip forward for Willian in front of goal, but the pass was over-hit. Eden Hazard soon went for goal but his effort was blocked.
Southampton had delivered a couple of crosses from the left but did not turn them into attempts on goal and it was at the other end of the pitch that Morata won the first corner. That indirectly led to a Fabregas chip into the six-yard box and for a moment it looked like it might clear Alex McCarthy and reach a blue shirt, but the keeper found the inches to claim the ball.
On 18 minutes, Willian was given the chance to send a free-kick in from one of his prime locations on the left, but although Morata was at the front of the race to meet the delivery, he could not stretch enough to make contact.
Two minutes later Southampton took the lead with a goal created by former Blue Ryan Bertrand. The Saints’ captain latched onto a pass down the flank and had the pace and strength to beat Cesar Azpilicueta on the outside before pulling the ball back. From eight yards out, Tadic did the rest. Recently it has been not making the most of leads in games that has been our Achilles’ heel, but now we faced the challenge of overhauling an early deficit.
We responded with our best move yet but when Zappacosta beat Bertrand in the air to head back across goal, Morata could not keep his header down sufficiently.
Christensen was not far away from getting on the end of a Willian corner at the far post but our open-play attacks were lacking penetration. Morata’s simmering frustration resulted in referee Mike Dean calling Cahill over to have words with our striker and our captain together.
With seven minutes to go before half-time, Thibaut Courtois made the best save of the game so far to deny James Ward-Prowse and then a follow-up stop from Tadic but by then the offside flag was up.
The closing moments of the first half were punctuated by free-kicks and disputed decisions, Southampton angry over a tackle by Marcos Alonso and Ward-Prowse booked for his foul, but also featured a Fabregas shot which took a looping deflection and did not miss the target by much. Despite that brief flicker of hope, Chelsea would need more invention and precision in our play in the second half if we were to pull this one around.
It was Courtois however who came between the Saints and a goal early in the second half when he pulled off a fantastic save to deny Shane Long. The striker had escaped our defence and raced away before being temporarily held up by Christensen.
Quickly up the other end, Hazard forced McCarthy to save at his near post with the keeper just about keeping out a Willian shot moments later. These were signs of things to come, but not before we went further behind.
Ward-Prowse’s corners had been causing us problems since the break but it was from one of the midfielder’s free-kicks that we conceded the second goal. Curved in with pace beyond our defence, the ball was met on the half volley by Bednarek and this time Courtois had no chance.
There was an hour gone, and it did not need emphasising that a quick response was needed if we were to stand any chance. It took nine minutes.
Giroud and Pedro had been added to our attack and the source of the goal was an Alonso cross, whipped over from deep after the home side stood off him. Giroud’s header was class with the determination to beat Wesley Hoedt to the ball and the accuracy to send it flying beyond McCarthy.
Southampton, understandably given their season, now looked edgy and the equaliser came with 74 minutes played. This time it was Willian who centred the ball and Hazard, despite being just a few yards from goal, had time to control it and then lash it high into the net.
The Chelsea fans behind that goal only had to wait four more minutes for the winner. Again the attack emanated from our left, Hazard this time out there. Willian was involved too and Alonso with a header kept the move alive. When the Saints only half-cleared the danger, Giroud struck a peach of a shot low into the bottom corner. Suddenly the Chelsea mood now matched the weather.
It still needed Courtois saves from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Josh Sims to preserve the win. Our keeper had made an important contribution today. Chelsea had come from behind to win for the first time since we beat Newcastle at home in early December.
Chelsea Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill (c); Zappacosta (Pedro 61), Fabregas, Kante, Alonso; Willian, Morata (Giroud 61), Hazard (Moses 86).
Unused subs Caballero, Emerson, Bakayoko, Barkley.
Scorers Giroud 70, 78, Hazard 75
Booked Hazard 64, Willian 82, Cahill 90+4.
Southampton McCarthy; Bednarek (Gabbiadini 90+2), Yoshida, Hoedt; Soares, Romeu, Hojbjerg, Bertrand (c); Ward-Prowse (Austin 79), Long, Tadic (Sims 83).
Unused subs Forster, Lemina, McQueen, Boufal.
Scorers Tadic 21, Bednarek 60
Booked Hojbjerg 42, Ward-Prowse 44, Bertrand 65, Romeu 78, Long 81.
Referee Mike Dean