Branislav Ivanovic’s late header capped a stirring Chelsea fightback as the visitors scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 2-1 at Southampton on Saturday.
Cesc Fabregas cancelled out Shane Long’s first half opener in the 75th minute before Ivanovic completed the comeback in the 89th minute to extend interim manager Guus Hiddink’s unbeaten domestic run to 13 games since he took charge in December.
The victory moved Chelsea up to 11th in the Premier League, while a first defeat – and first goal conceded – in seven league games dented Southampton’s hopes of challenging the top four, with Ronald Koeman’s side falling to seventh.
Hiddink has made no secret of the fact Chelsea’s priorities now lie with the FA Cup and the Champions League.
But with last season’s champions still in the bottom half of the table coming into this game, the Dutchman was clearly anxious to maintain the momentum generated since he took charge.
There were, however, few signs of the growing confidence that has been a feature of Chelsea’s play during the last two months and particularly in last weekend’s 5-1 FA Cup defeat of an under-strength Manchester City.
Instead, the first half confirmed Southampton’s resurgent form, with Koeman’s side showing more purpose and attacking intent while the visitors never threatened to end Saints goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s outstanding record of defiance.
Chelsea’s defences looked the more vulnerable and were first exposed after 10 minutes when they failed to deal with a Southampton corner.
Saints centre-back Virgil van Dijk clipped the loose ball back towards the far post where Long should have done much better than head over after out-jumping his marker on the edge of the six-yard box.
But while Koeman’s side may have been on top, they created too few clear opportunities with Charlie Austin’s 20-yard shot one of the few efforts to threaten Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
– Guilty party –
Nevertheless, the Chelsea back-line, missing injured centre-backs John Terry and Kurt Zouma, appeared creaky whenever Saints applied pressure.
And it was a defensive error that led to Long giving the home side the lead three minutes before half-time.
Chelsea left-back Baba Rahman was the guilty party, attempting to head a long clearance square towards Ivanovic instead of clearing his lines.
That allowed Irish forward Long to intercept and advance into the penalty area before clipping the ball over Courtois for his ninth goal of the season.
Forster had been barely tested, but he was fortunate to escape when Ryan Bertrand almost diverted the ball into his own net immediately before the break.
After the restart, Chelsea finally began to threaten as the momentum of the game shifted in their favour.
Eden Hazard’s 56th minute cross picked out Diego Costa at the far post, only for the Spain striker to volley wide.
Costa, though, was becoming the central figure in the game, drawing fouls and earning a yellow card for a trip on Van Dijk as tempers threatened to flare.
Even Koeman got involved in a tangle with Cesar Azpilicueta as the Chelsea right-back tried to recover a ball that had gone out for a throw-in in the technical area.
But it was Costa’s determination that led to the 75th minute equaliser, with the striker working hard to keep the ball from rolling out for a throw-in and pulling back for Fabregas.
The Spain midfielder spotted Hazard making a run into the box and curled a cross across the face of goal that drifted inside the far post as Forster’s attention was distracted by the onrushing forward.
From that point, Chelsea appeared the most likely winners and they completed their comeback one minute from time when Ivanovic met Willian’s corner to head home.