The upcoming clash between Chelsea and Southampton looks set to resemble the final embers of those grueling stages towards the end of the Tour de France.
After the taxing, convoluted mountainous period, the race for home starts in the South-East. But a lot of those riders who have poured endeavor and industry into the mid-section of the campaign can wilt and subsequently, spectators are treated to a bit of slugfest as the competitors vie for the coveted yellow jersey.
Shifting back to the aforementioned soccer teams, it’d be fair to say these two look as though they’re beginning to feel the effects of their own arduous efforts. Indeed, after the congested festive period neither team has been at their best, with Jose Mourinho and Ronald Koeman’s patent for working with a nexus of trusted players revealing physical pitfalls.
For the Blues, that was on show in earnest during their shock Champions League loss on away goals to Paris Saint-Germain in midweek, as the French champions’ ten men ran the English side ragged for long spells. But what about Southampton? Do they have it in them to capitalize on the league leaders’ lackadaisicalness, or—with just two goals in their last six matches—are they just as punch drunk themselves?
Saints have certainly had ample time to prepare for this one. No European or FA Cup commitments mean that they’ll walk out at the Bridge for their first competitive game in 12 days. For a side that seem to have lost their swagger, lost their intensity and were having to deal with a host of key players missing, you suspect that rest period was welcomed.
Not only has Koeman had to conquer perennial injury problems to key players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld, but summer signings like Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic—who began the season with such conviction—have seen their respective performance levels drop off dramatically.
Naturally these deteriorating facets have had a sizable cumulative effect and although Saints got over the line in their previous match against a belligerent Crystal Palace team—a late Sadio Mane goals gave Southampton a vital 1-0 win—they were far from their free-flowing best. But it’s vital this team rediscovers their spark if they’re to remain in the mix for a Champions League spots.
Doing so is not exactly a deal breaker for Koeman; regardless of what happens from here on in, the Dutchman will rightly receive immense reverence for the job carried out this season in the wake up last summer’s flurry of transfer activity. But you just wonder how many more chances this side will get at mixing it at the top end of the Premier League table in years to come.
After all, despite their turbulent run of recent results, Saints are still in seventh spot in the league, just four points behind fourth place Manchester United and with Liverpool and Tottenham within striking distance. While the later two have built up some momentum with fine runs of respective form, each side is not without their flaws and that should certainly add fuel to Southampton’s own aspirations.
They need to get back on track sharpish, though. Looking at Saints potential XI for this game against the Blues, this clash in West London represents a perfect chance for this team to usher in a second wind.
Schneiderlin, Wanyama and Alderweireld should all play and will be surely be back at peak fitness following their extended break. In addition Koeman suddenly has a surfeit of options in offensive spots, with the likes of Mane, Pelle, Tadic, Shane Long and Eljero Elia all vying for a starting places.
When Saints played Chelsea earlier in the season they turned in arguably the finest defensive performance from any side this campaign. The Blues were rampant at that juncture and although Eden Hazard was able to conjure one moment of magic in the first half to level the scores after a Mane opener, the energy and application displayed by Koeman’s men that afternoon was simply astounding, as they kept the league leaders’ vast attacking talents at bay.
Recent evidence suggests that neither side is quite at those levels displayed earlier on in the campaign and Chelsea’s magnificent home record under Jose Mourinho—they remain unbeaten at the Bridge in the Premier League this season—means this will be a very difficult game for Saints to get out of alive.
But with Wednesday night’s labored performance from the Blues’ considered as well as their own lull in all competitions, it’ll certainly be intriguing to see how they fare against a Southampton XI that should be bolstered, replenished and ready to play with the freedom of a team that has already accomplished more than what was possibly conceivable this season already.
With United and Spurs set to meet at Old Trafford and Liverpool facing a tricky trip to Swansea City on Monday night there is a fair chance that regardless of what happens this weekend, Southampton will remain very much in the mix for the top four. But a stirring performance and a positive result at the Bridge would ensure people think twice about writing off their credentials just yet.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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