A Blue Up North previews Chelsea’s visit to the south coast this weekend.
Chelsea kick off this weekend’s Premier League fixtures in the Saturday lunchtime kick off away at Southampton. In what is a prelude to next weekend’s FA Cup semi final clash, The Blues will be coming up against a former player in the opponent’s dugout.
Mark Hughes took on the unenviable task of trying to keep The Saints in the Premier League on 14 March after they had registered only 1 win in their previous 17 matches. His first task as manager was to lead his side to victory away at League One side Wigan Athletic in the quarter finals of the FA Cup to set up next weekend’s clash at Wembley. That was followed by a heavy defeat away at West Ham, but last weekend Hughes guided his relegation threatened side to a spirited performance away at Arsenal.
This will be Hughes’s first home match in charge of The Saints and he will be without defender Jack Stephens, who was sent off at Arsenal, and midfielder Steven Davis. However, Shane Long is expected to overcome an ankle injury and be included in the squad.
The St Mary’s Stadium is one of The Blues favoured venues. Chelsea won the first-ever competitive match played there back in 2001 and in 10 visits, they have won 7 times and lost only once. Meanwhile, the host’s have not beaten any top 6 side for 2 seasons and Hughes has not beaten The Blues in his last 4 attempts.
The 2 big questions for all Chelsea fans are will Antonio Conte shuffle his pack and how effective will his side be on the pitch? Last time out the manager refused to change either his formation or his personnel (the only changes were like for like) and they only managed a draw against lowly West Ham.
With the prospect of a top 4 finish all but gone, the Italian has the opportunity to mix things up a little. After all his first choice formation and starting XI have only registered 2 wins in their last 8 matches in all competitions. During that time The Blues were knocked out of The Champions League and slipped to 5th place, a full 10 points behind Spurs in 4th.
Conte will definitely be without David Luiz and Ethan Ampadu, but should have the rest of his squad to choose from. With 3 matches all away from Stamford Bridge in just 8 days, and the last of those being the semi final at Wembley, we can only hope changes to the team are imminent as competition for places could turn the side’s fortunes around and also establish a winning side in time for the Wembley showdown.
But who exactly gets chosen to play is only part of the picture. Tactics, attitude, belief and an all important clinical edge will make all the difference. Defensively, The Blues have looked very solid for the most part, but they have not kept a clean sheet in their last 8 matches, dating back to the 4-0 home win over Hull City in the 4th round of The FA Cup.
Conte needs to get his side making more quality through balls to the striker, especially crosses from out wide. Both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud are excellent in the air, but rarely is this utilised. Marcos Alonso plays more as a support for Eden Hazard, while crossing the ball isn’t Victor Moses‘ best attribute. It will come as no surprise that deep crosses from Cesar Azpilicueta is Morata’s most successful assist machine this season as the pair of them close in on Chelsea’s assist/scoring partnership record.
Conte will have his full midfield options available to him for almost the first time. Will Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley or even Tiemoue Bakayoko get another chance to shine. Surely against a Southampton side, desperate for points in their fight against relegation,will be strong in midfield. West Ham managed to slice through when only 1-0 down and hold on for a draw last time out and we may need more steel in the middle of the park than Cesc Fabregas can muster.
The other issue that Chelsea struggle with is holding on when they are leading. They only managed to score once in 23 attempts against The Hammers, but the East Londoners managed to strike the equaliser on only their third touch in the penalty box. The Blues should have been out of sight before then and then they did not look mentally strong enough to regain the victory after Hernandez’s strike that most of their play had deserved.
Despite The Blues poor form in 2018, Southampton are one of only 3 sides in worse form this year. The Saints have only registered 1 win in their last 19 league matches and that was against bottom side West Bromwich Albion. Hence the change in manager, but surely even Mark Hughes cannot turn this team into a side that can beat the reigning champions?
Whichever line up Conte chooses, The Chelsea side will need to play well and fight hard for every minute of the match to keep their magnificent record at St Mary’s going.
At least the away supporters will be able to keep singing “Champions of England” for another couple of weekends.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue