Mauricio Pochettino once referred to Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho as “the best of the best”. Prior to this weekend’s encounter at Stamford Bridge, the Southampton boss was asked to expound on his thoughts regarding ‘The Special One’. Pochettino rarely speaks English during interviews and press conferences; the majority of his statements are made through an interpreter: “I think he’s one of the best managers in football history. His record speaks for itself. We have a very good relationship, but at the same time while before and after the games we will be friends, during the full 90 minutes we’re not going to be friends, we’re just going to be rivals.”
During their time in La Liga, Mourinho’s Real Madrid side were four for four in matches against Pochettino and his Spanish club, Espanyol; the combined score of all four contests was 13-0. Last season, with Rafa Benitez at the helm, Pochettino directed Southampton to a shock 2-1 win over the Blues at St Mary’s Stadium. And prior to the hiring of the Portuguese manager, the Saints (under Nigel Adkins) came from two goals down at Stamford Bridge to salvage a 2-2 draw against the defending European champions. So in spite of Pochettino’s poor head-to-head record against Mourinho, he and Southampton will enter Sunday’s encounter with plenty of confidence.
Southampton will welcome back Jack Cork and Gaston Ramirez to their lineup. Cork missed last week’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal with an ankle injury whilst Ramirez returned back late from international duty. Saints defender Luke Shaw will also return to the squad after suffering a knock during the opening 45 minutes of the match at the Emirates. Adam Lallana will also see considerable time after being removed in the 54th minute due to fatigue of that contest (he had previously started in both of England’s friendlies during the international break).
Despite the loss to the first place Gunners, Southampton won the possession battle against Arsenal, a feat rarely accomplished by an opponent in London. Although their possession advantage didn’t generate any scoring chances, the Saints were within striking distance of Arsenal until they conceded an 86th minute penalty and only had themselves (or goalkeeper Artur Boruc) to blame for the Gunners opening goal. Southampton were inspiring at the Emirates, playing with spirit and adventure, and are likely to be an unpleasant opponent for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Football experts are still split over Southampton and their ability to compete with the Premier League’s “serious” top four competitors, but the Saints and their manager are unfazed by the doubters. The Saints will take confidence in the fact that they were able to win at Anfield and earn a late draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford. “We are going to continue playing the same way, we’re going to continue playing with the same philosophy, with the same idea of how we execute our football” Pochettino said.
While Southampton are unified, Chelsea are a team still searching for its identity under Mourinho. The Blues enter the weekend with twenty-four points and are third on the Premier League table; trailing league-leading Arsenal by four points. The wide-open title race has allowed Mourinho and his side to stay in striking distance of the Gunners despite an inconsistent month of November in the Premier League (1 W, 1 D, 1 L). This after Chelsea went undefeated in the league during October, including a 2-1 win over Manchester City.
Mourinho has openly stated that he has yet to find his “best side”. But the Portuguese manager has clearly decided to leave fan-favorite Juan Mata on the bench in favor of the Brazilian playmaker, Oscar. Mourinho’s faith in Oscar has paid off as the youngster is having a strong start to the season; along with fellow Brazilian midfielder Ramires.
But Mourinho’s strikers (Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o) and winger Eden Hazard have not played to the Chelsea boss’ expectations. Hazard has shown glimpses of his potential, but Chelsea’s strike force has hampered the team’s title challenge (Torres has tallied just one goal, Ba none, while Eto’o has two goals in the league).
Defender David Luiz is still not 100% fit, so he won’t be in the lineup to face Southampton. Mourinho was handed news of a fresh injury to his first-choice striker Samuel Eto’o following Chelsea’s 1-0 Champions League loss to Basel this week. The Cameroon forward sustained a grade one tear during the match and was replaced by Fernando Torres, who made his return from an adductor injury.
Injuries, inconsistency, and a busy upcoming league fixture list are going to see Mourinho having to rotate his squad. Following the match versus Southampton, Chelsea will travel to Sunderland (Wednesday) and Stoke City (Saturday); three games in seven days.
“Now is the time for everybody to feel that they have a chance, when we play now Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday – Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke. The S-S-S week, everybody will have a chance” Mourinho pointed out during his Friday press conference.
Chelsea are coming off of their poorest performance of the season. Even though the Blues wound up qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League they were awful in Switzerland. They failed to muster a single shot on target over 90+ minutes.
Prior to Wednesday, Chelsea did beat West Ham, but the Hammers are hopeless; playing the majority of their recent matches with no striker. And most football fans can remember Chelsea last home match before the international break. The Blues needed a dubious penalty to avoid defeat against West Bromwich Albion and secure Jose Mourinho’s 66-match home unbeaten streak against Premier League opponents.
Now is not the time for Chelsea to be playing a team such as Southampton. The outcome of this contest will be determined by how Mourinho’s players handle Pochettino’s pressing style of play. The initial thought is players such as Oscar, Ramires and Hazard should thrive under these kinds of conditions. But how will the rest of Mourinho’s squad fair against Pochettino’s all-out attack?
Southampton’s defense has been strong (seven goals allowed in twelve BPL matches) due to their domination of possession, but the Saints haven’t scored that many goals in the league. If you take away the four-goal outburst against Hull City prior to the international break, Southampton has only scored eleven times in eleven matches. The Saints need to create more chances and start putting balls in the back of the net if they are to compete against the established top four competitors. This match against Chelsea may provide Southampton with that opportunity…or it may end up being more of the same.
Pochettino’s team is just two points behind Chelsea in the Premier League table heading into Sunday’s match at Stamford Bridge. The Portuguese manager has never beaten Mourinho; a man he has great admiration for. The last time Southampton stepped on a pitch against Chelsea, Pochettino walked off in victory. The last time Mourinho faced off against Pochettino was in La Liga and under very different circumstances. This Southampton squad has already shown they can play with the best away from St Mary’s and they have confidence from last year’s two solid results against Chelsea.
Can ‘The Special One’ find the right lineup in time for kick-off? How will the Blues handle the Saints pressure? Can Southampton compete with a focused and determined Chelsea side in front of a raucous Stamford Bridge? Or will ‘The Silent One’ bring an end to ‘The Special One’s’ home league dominance?
Super Sunday beckons.