Chelsea manager Antonio Conte says his team showed “the right fire in our eyes” as they mounted a remarkable comeback from 2-0 down to win at Southampton.
The victory – thanks to three goals in eight second-half minutes – kept alive their faint hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League.
Dusan Tadic’s opener, a placed effort following Ryan Bertrand’s marauding run, and Polish defender Jan Bednarek’s left-footed shot looked to be lifting Saints out of the bottom three.
But, with Mark Hughes seemingly on course for a first league victory as Southampton manager since arriving on 14 March, the entrance of substitute Olivier Giroud, who scored twice, sparked a listless Chelsea into life.
The France forward’s header – his first league goal for Antonio Conte’s team – and left-footed drive sandwiched Eden Hazard’s left-foot finish as the Blues moved within seven points of fourth-placed Tottenham.
“I was very angry from our first half,” Conte said. “In the second half we showed great character, great determination and desire to win the game. We showed the right fire in our eyes.”
For an hour, Chelsea’s performance epitomised their travails since the turn of the year, with the defending champions having collected just 12 points from the previous 33 available.
Willian’s 55th-minute shot was their first effort on target, and there were question marks over the application of several players in the build-up to both Saints goals.
One of those players – wing-back Marcos Alonso who crossed for Giroud’s header – was also fortunate to escape without punishment for standing on the back of Southampton forward Shane Long’s calf in the first half.
The incident left the Southampton manager furious and calling for the Football Association to take retrospective action, which could potentially rule Alonso out of next Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final rematch between the clubs.
“It was a poor challenge, it should have been a red card in my view,” Hughes said.
“I don’t think he was booked, so maybe people need to look at that again, retrospectively. Thankfully he’s just about OK, but he’s been raked down the calf.
“We’re not here to accuse people, and no sour grapes, but a decision needs to be made on that because it’s not acceptable.”
Southampton remain 18th as they try to avoid slipping into the Championship for the first time since 2011-12.
No respite for Southampton or Hughes
After being sacked by Stoke, Hughes is facing the ignominious prospect of playing a part in the relegation of two clubs this season.
The upturn in results the Saints board hoped for when the Welshman was brought in to replace Mauricio Pellegrino just over a month ago has not materialised.
While an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea is on the horizon, Hughes has presided over three successive league defeats, with three goals conceded in each match.
Following an abject 3-0 defeat at West Ham, there were encouraging signs in a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal last Sunday, and more of the same against Chelsea.
Southampton controlled proceedings for about 70 minutes, but their biggest problem is turning performances into points.
“Some of our guys are up for what we’ve got ahead of ourselves,” Hughes said.
“I’m learning about the group more and more each training session and match. We’re still conceding goals and they’re just slips in concentration.”
One victory in 20 league matches – against bottom club West Brom – does not bode well for the Saints though, who could be six points adrift of safety later.
Conte changes the flow
Much of Chelsea’s display typified the problems that have undermined their defence of the title and have been exacerbated by speculation over the future of Conte.
The Italian has not helped himself at times, allowing himself to become embroiled in a public spat with Manchester United counterpart Jose Mourinho and at times cutting a desolate figure on the touchline.
There was again an absence of emotion and touchline theatrics that marked first season at Stamford Bridge, but Conte did turn this contest on its head with the introduction of Giroud and Pedro.
“In the first half we didn’t play well but not just that, they put more into the tempo than us,” Conte said.
“The most important thing is to show in every game the right passion and to fight until the end. We need to finish this season in the best possible way.
“I don’t know why the desire wasn’t there but the coach is the first person to have the fault. It doesn’t matter that we won the game 3-2, it was important to see the right reaction and fight in the eyes of my players.”
Chelsea had lacked conviction in front of goal until Giroud replaced Alvaro Morata, while Davide Zappacosta had a largely forgettable afternoon before being withdrawn for Pedro.
The former Torino man was caught out of position for Tadic’s opening goal and had just 11 touches in Southampton territory during the first period.
By contrast Ryan Bertrand created the opening goal for Saints and appeared to be almost permanently stationed in the Chelsea half, having 23 touches.
Giroud, though, made the difference – scoring twice from his two efforts on goal.
Man of the match – Olivier Giroud (Chelsea)
‘Super-sub Giroud’ – the stats
- Southampton have lost consecutive Premier League games after scoring two or more goals for the first time ever.
- Chelsea have won a Premier League game from two goals down for the first time since August 2002 under Claudio Ranieri (3-2 v Charlton).
- Hughes is only the second manager to lose three Premier League games against the same opponent in a single season after Graeme Souness vs Arsenal in 2004-05.
- The Blues have won five in a row against Saints in the league for the first time ever.
- Tadic has been directly involved in 45 Premier League goals since his debut in August 2014 (18 goals, 27 assists), 14 more than any other Southampton player.
- Bednarek is only the third Polish player to score in the Premier League, after Robert Warzycha in 1992 and Marcin Wasilewski in 2015
- Giroud has netted 19 goals in the Premier League as a sub, a haul only Jermain Defoe can better (24).
- Giroud is also the top-scoring sub in the Premier League this season, with six goals from the bench.
- Giroud is the first player to score an away goal against the same opponent for different clubs in a single Premier League season since Mikel Arteta (for Everton and Arsenal v Blackburn 2011/12).
- Hazard has scored 69 Premier League goals for Chelsea; only Frank Lampard (147) and Didier Drogba (104) have netted more.
Both clubs play again before facing each other in their FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on 22 April (15:00 BST). Southampton travel to Leicester City on Thursday, 19 April (19:45 BST kick-off), while Chelsea visit Turf Moor to play Burnley on the same evening (19:45 BST kick-off).
Source: BBC NEWS