Comeback Kings: Olivier Giroud Shatters Southampton Survival Hopes
Football, bloody hell. At 2-0 down, it looked like Chelsea would suffer yet another humiliation. You could sense that the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, who was in attendance at St. Mary’s, was getting ready to swing the axe and sack yet another Italian manager in the visitors’ tunnel. But then, something almost miraculous happened. Something that we’d not seen since 2002, the era of Ranieri.
In a devastating nine minute spell, Chelsea turned the game on its head. Before the partisan home crowd could digest what they’d just seen, Chelsea were leading by three goals to two. They couldn’t believe it. Mark Hughes couldn’t believe it. 2-0 up and they’d f*cked it up. “That’s why you’re going down” and “That’s why we’re Champions”, bellowed the away end. The home end sat shocked, in utter disbelief.
Here are the talking points from a gritty 3-2 away win.
#1 If It’s Broke, Don’t Fix It?
Despite numerous calls for making radical changes, Antonio Conte persisted with a midfield of Fabregas and Kante against Southampton. Antonio Rudiger lost his place to Gary Cahill in defence, Conte presumably dishing out some sort of retribution for the German’s outspokenness after the draw against West Ham. Victor Moses also found himself on the bench, with Davide Zappacosta handed a role at right wing-back. Apparently Conte does not appreciate his fullback giving the ball away cheaply and repeatedly taking foul throws. Up front, it was the usual trio of Willian and Hazard supporting Alvaro Morata. Chelsea did not start very well but we were hardy rotten either. But it just seemed like the home side wanted the three points more than the visitors. And it didn’t take too long for them to be on their way.
#2 Alonso and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
This was a day to forget for Marcos Alonso for many reasons. He was at least partly at fault for both Southampton goals. For the first goal, he was too slow to track Dusan Tadic’s run, which resulted in the Serbian having all the time and space in the world to position himself in the middle of the Chelsea box. And lest we forget, it was former Blue Ryan Bertrand who outpaced Azpilicueta on Chelsea’s right side before crossing the ball for Tadic to score. Alonso’s role in the second goal wasn’t too different. A free kick from Chelsea’s left sailed over Gary Cahill’s head, before landing at the feet of Jan Bednarek who scored Southampton’s second. The Spaniard had failed to spot the run in time and was too slow to recognise the danger. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Alonso then raked his studs on the back of Shane Long’s calf, which is a clear sending off any day of the week. Had Mike Dean seen it, he’d have loved to flourish a red card and send Alonso off for an early bath.
#3 Proactive Reaction
With his team down by two goals, Conte decided to make changes as early as the 61st minute. Off went Morata and Zappacosta, and on came Giroud and Pedro. Chelsea switched to a back four with these changes, and that seemed to be more that what Southampton could handle. Conte is often criticised to taking too long to make changes and lately his substitutions have had little effect on the game. But this time, his tactical adjustments and substitutions did the trick. Pedro was not useless and Giroud played his role as super-sub to perfection, bagging a brace.
#4 The French Revolution
Olivier Giroud had come close to opening his account for Chelsea in the Premier League a few times before this game, but was foiled by the woodwork or the opposition goalkeeper’s heroics. This time, however, he made no mistake. Marcos Alonso crossed from deep into the Saints’ box and Giroud expertly got in between two Southampton defenders to head it in. Soon after, Eden Hazard scored the equaliser and sent Southampton into panic mode. Giroud then completed the turnaround in the next few minutes when he lashed the ball into the corner of the goal from 15 yards or so. The French striker had a reputation as a super-sub at Arsenal, and although his intention was to be more than that at Chelsea, there’s no shame in being the guy whom the manager calls upon when he needs a difference maker.
#5 Decisions Decisions
Chelsea play Southampton again next weekend in the FA Cup semifinal, so both teams will have a chance to adapt to each other’s tactics and rectify the mistakes they made in this game. Chelsea might need to investigate why they were so blunt and devoid of inspiration for around 70 minutes. The answers might involve swapping Morata for Giroud, which cannot be good news for Morata’s world cup ambitions. Still, Conte must do what is required to win the cup and if that means benching his record signing, then so be it.
But before the reunion with Southampton, Chelsea play Burnley on Thursday in the Premier League. The Clarets are flying high and could be playing in the Europa League next season. Whether Chelsea join them in Europe’s second tier competition or qualify for the Champions League will depend on the Blues getting the three points they need to keep up with Spurs.