Southampton v Chelsea
Ronald Koeman’s Southampton face another stern test at St Mary’s Stadium on Sunday when they play hosts to current league leaders Chelsea, hoping to sustain the form that has brought them two wins in six days.
Southampton’s doubters were in full voice recently when the Saints’ flying start to the season stalled when they failed their first real tests against Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United. Another surprise 1-0 loss at Burnley was followed by the same scoreline at the hands of League One side Sheffield United in the League Cup, bringing the horrendous run to five straight defeats. But Koeman managed to get his players to regroup before Christmas, and a 3-0 home win over Everton last Saturday was followed by an impressive 3-1 romp at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day, and it appears for the moment that normal service has been resumed. But today’s game against the table toppers, followed by Arsenal and Manchester United again, either side of a tricky FA Cup tie against Championship leaders, Ipswich Town, suggests this will be another testing few weeks for the Southampton squad. With the games coming thick and fast over the Christmas period, Koeman is sure to shuffle his starting eleven, which might signal a chance for the out-of-favour Dusan Tadic who began the season so brightly, while Graziano Pelle will also be hoping for a return to his early-season form in front of goal.
Chelsea appear to be in cruise control at the moment, with their 2-1 defeat at Newcastle remaining their only defeat in the league since April. And yet for a team that dominates most games and is bulging with attacking talent, they are not turning their dominance into thumping wins, and their 3-0 home win over Tottenham at the beginning of December is the only time in their last dozen Premier league games that they have scored more than two goals, and their last three wins over Hull, Stoke and West Ham have all been by a 2-0 margin, suggesting that they are managing to do just enough. That said, if it had not been for Adrian’s antics in the West Ham goal on Boxing Day, then it could well have been more. Eden Hazard is back to his mercurial best, Nemanja Matic is a destructive and productive presence in front of the back four, Diego Costa is always a bullying threat up front, while John Terry is in the form of his life with Gary Cahill at the back.
With Manchester City breathing down their necks, I can’t see Chelsea coming unstuck on the south coast, and fancy them for a hard-fought odd-goal victory against a Southampton side that will give as good as they get at both ends of the field. It might be a tactical battle between two of the best coaches in the game.