Chelsea magic missing in 1-1 draw with Southampton
(Sadio Mane 17)
(Eden Hazard 45+1)
Just two days earlier, Chelsea had looked invincible. At Southampton last night, they seemed invisible.
The Blues battered West Ham on Boxing Day. At St Mary's, they pulled a late Christmas cracker with a bad joke.
Apart from Eden Hazard, the magicians left their wands under the Christmas trees back in London.
They were present in body, but the magic was missing.
Andre Schuerrle was so anonymous he was withdrawn at half-time to spare further embarrassment.
Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic were effectively straitjacketed and Diego Costa struggled to keep his feet (quite literally on a couple of occasions).
Southampton's last-ditch defending was superb, but Jose Mourinho may wonder where his side's characteristic fortitude went.
They will still end the year in first place. But they faltered. The mask slipped a little. Their typical fightback deserted them. They looked human. That will infuriate Mourinho.
In fact, his favoured Superman left his cape behind. At St Mary's, Chelsea's captain appeared vulnerable.
In a week when his manager has been championing his refusal to grow old disgracefully, John Terry found himself caught short.
As Dusan Tadic prepared to a dink the kind of perfect chip usually associated with sand wedges, Terry stepped forward and called for offside.
In that moment, he was lost.
He was out of sync with the offside line and out of time to catch the galloping Sadio Mane.
The Saints forward left Terry for dead, racing clear before chipping the ball past Thibaut Courtois in the 17th minute.
All season long, Chelsea's back four have defined organisation, but they scattered like bowling pins in a single Southampton strike.
The Saints hounded them.
Much has been made of Ronald Koeman's emphasis on eye-catching play, but his Saints march with real men of muscle.
Mane was a monstrous presence, second only to Victor Wanyama in his ability to terrorise. Mane made a mess of the fullbacks. Wanyama made Nemanja Matic look mortal.
If Matic cannot settle, neither can Chelsea. For 45 minutes, the Blues were unsuccessfully engaged in a battle of the biceps, outmuscled in midfield and subdued in attack.
They managed only one shot on target in the entire first half. Unfortunately for the home side, it fell to Hazard.
The Belgian has been molded into a Mourinho prototype, but in a positive way. At one point, he tracked back to tackle Tadic in the left back position.
His industry is matched only by his improvisation. Every game is a double shift.
That hackneyed criticism that Mourinho restricts an artist's freedom is not only naive, it's entirely inaccurate.
As long as Hazard plays a supporting role in his own half, he has a licence to kill in the final third. That's his bond with Mourinho.
In the dying seconds of the first half, Fabregas dinked a ball towards the left flank and caught Maya Yoshida, playing in an unfamiliar position, napping.
The Saints fullback gave Hazard half a metre. It was more than enough.
Chelsea's peerless artist brushed past Yoshida twice, cut inside Toby Alderweireld and swept a curling shot past Fraser Foster and into the far corner.
Without threatening, without imposing, without pressing, Chelsea had found an unlikely equaliser. But then, they had an unfair advantage. They had Hazard.
But the Blues had failed to profit on the other flank.
Schuerrle's World Cup Winner's medal has always meant less to Mourinho than his erratic form in a Chelsea jersey and he offered little in the first half to justify a permanent recall.
He was up against 19-year-old academy graduate Matt Targett, making his first Premier League start for Southampton. The kid won every contest.
Schuerrle was hauled off at half-time and replaced by Willian. The visitors dominated the second half, but Koeman's men neatly blend rare skill with real sweat. Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin snapped at heels like yapping Rottweilers.
In the end, they took it a tad too far.
A second yellow for Schneiderlin left the Saints hanging on by their bitten fingernail stubs for the final three minutes.
But they held on for a precious point.
Mourinho will almost certainly lose sleep over the two that got away.
BY THE NUMBERS
Cesc Fabregas is the first EPL player to have 13 assists in his first 18 games of the season.
Chelsea have received four yellow cards for simulation this season - the highest in the EPL.
Sadio Mane's goal for Southampton was the first Chelsea have conceded in 299 minutes.
- Tottenham 0 Man United 0
- Southampton 1 Chelsea 1
- Aston Villa 0 Sunderland 0
- Hull City 0 Leicester 1
- Man City 2 Burnley 2
- QPR 0 Crystal Palace 0
- Stoke City 2 West Brom 0
- West Ham 1 Arsenal 2