Though the Man of the Match shortlist appeared unusually lengthy at St Mary’s yesterday, one dugout held the stand-out candidate for the game’s most influential performer.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho risked the wrath of his team’s supporters and talisman, Juan Mata, as he replaced the two-time club player of the year and pacey wide man Andre Schϋrrle eight minutes after the turnaround with the match on a knife-edge.
But his substitutes could not have served him better, as Brazilian duo Oscar and Willian combined to great effect to shift up through the gears and pull away from Southampton, their erstwhile dogged, dangerous opponents, to take pole and eventually navigate their side to a 3-0 win.
With 53 minutes on the clock, it was beginning to resemble another of those days so often endured by travelling Blues fans this term, as a bright opening gave way to a period of barely contained pressure, leading to a stagnation of style and productivity that threatened to undermine both this result and their season.
A withdrawn Mata was pictured looking first outraged then dismayed as agents the world over began plotting the Spaniard’s January movements.
However, within two minutes, the newly introduced Oscar could and should have scored, having been put clean through and unwisely opted to “play safe”, in the words of his coach, banking on a challenge from Saints goalkeeper Kelvin Davis as he knocked the ball to the veteran’s right and consequently, rather than tapping into an empty net, rightly being cautioned for simulation.
He would need just five minutes to make amends. When Willian and Eden Hazard moved the ball left to the 22-year-old, this conjuror of space engineered yet another yard and his attempted left-footed centre drew a deflection to loop over Davis and onto the foot of the far post, bouncing kindly for the alert Fernando Torres to stoop and nod the Blues into a well-deserved lead.
A little over 10 minutes later the guests’ advantage had doubled; Willian this time the architect as he sensed a gap between defender and keeper and picked his spot to perfection, drilling home low with a near-post right-foot rocket after a pass from – guess who – Oscar.
And with eight minutes to play it was 3-0, with Oscar himself completing the victory via the aid of another deflection that, on this occasion, took his left-footed effort away from Davis and inside his near-hand upright, following a delightful lofted assist from the one player who had sparkled consistently and remained on the pitch long enough to actually claim the Man of the Match award; the exuberant and effervescent Hazard.
The Belgian was immense again as he provided flicks, tricks and fortitude in abundance when orchestrating a number of diverse and inventive attacking passages for the visitors and showed why he represents his team’s best hope this year for a title tilt. Even without troubling the scorers along the South Coast, he stands alone in double figures on the goal front and threatens to add to his tally whenever within range.
Chelsea were given the platform to belatedly express themselves by a forceful early agenda manifesting itself in reassuring displays at both ends of the field. Torres was extremely lively and creative, even if his game still lacks that smoothness that comes with the confidence once so readily at the disposal of his former self.
Petr Cech braved one or two indecisive moments that have crept into his game in recent seasons when addressing set-piece scenarios but was otherwise commanding, while John Terry and Gary Cahill followed up outstanding showings at Stamford Bridge on Sunday with another excellent afternoon’s input here.
Cesar Azpilicueta showed immense courage and commitment to brush off knocks to his lower back and upper thigh during a busy first period and fulfil another exercise in relentless application and aptitude that will no doubt have helped fellow full-back Ashley Cole bed himself back into the set-up in the absence of Branislav Ivanovic.
Despite the dynamism provided by David Luiz last time out lacking from the midfield, thanks to the charismatic South American’s suspension for a fifth booking, plus an inability to rely upon Frank Lampard’s experience due to a muscle injury, Mikel Jon Obi and Ramires held their own in the face of the famed Southampton attack and overcame a string of surrenders in possession amidst hostile weather conditions to gradually exert their influence over a waning Saints engine room.
Without the magician’s sleight of hand, though, none of the cards among Mourinho’s deck could have come to the fore. His reshuffle, which might have been seen as another instance of the Portuguese being too clever for his own good, became, with hindsight, a no-brainer. As it turns out, the rabbit was in the hat the whole time.