As the Chelsea players blasted out the final strains of Auld Lang Syne (does anybody still sing that?), they could reflect on a rather mixed year for the club.
The first half of 2018 was odd, frankly, as Antonio Conte’s spell in charge came to a frustrating end.
But the Maurizio Sarri era has started nicely enough, and we find ourselves in the Champions League places; five points above Arsenal and just four adrift of Manchester City in second.
If the goal in the 2018/19 season is to book a return to the Champions League for next term, we are making excellent headway towards it.
The festive period has gone quite nicely. Defeat against Leicester was a source of huge frustration, but victory against Watford righted the ship and the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace last time out ensured we enter 2019 with our heads held high.
The winning goal against the Eagles was one of Sarri construction. David Luiz pumped a long ball forward – that was out of character, but N’Golo Kante, bursting from midfield in his new role under the Italian, latched onto the pass and fired home to secure a superb three points on a day in which Arsenal and Tottenham both faltered.
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It was a supremely pleasing performance. We hit the woodwork twice through Willian and Ross Barkley, and defended so well that Palace only registered their first shot at goal as late as the 85th minute.
One more big effort, this time against Southampton at the Bridge on Wednesday, will stamp our authority on fourth place, potentially close the gap to Tottenham and City, and ensure we enter the mini-league break – it’s FA Cup and Carabao Cup action up next – in high spirits.
Chelsea Team NewsUnfortunately, the chaotic festive fixture list has played havoc with squad availability.
Pedro is out for the next week or so with a hamstring injury, while Olivier Giroud’s ankle problem could keep him out for the foreseeable future.
Question marks persist over Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Cesc Fabregas and Callum Hudson-Odoi too, and so there are issues in attacking areas for Sarri to fathom out.
Alvaro Morata played the last 15 minutes against Palace, but it’s unlikely that he will be ready to start here; the FA Cup tie with Nottingham Forest is his most likely destination for a return.
It’s a conundrum, and one that might force a reshuffle.
The usual midfield trio – Jorginho, Kante and Mateo Kovacic – could all start, and that might free up Barkley to play on the left flank, with Willian on the right and Eden Hazard once again starting in that central ‘false nine’ role.
Happily, there are no problems in defence, and our normal quartet will start assuming they have recovered well from the Palace game.
Chelsea vs Southampton Head to HeadThere have been some 103 meetings between Chelsea and Southampton through the years.
We can ruminate on periods of dominance, or reflect upon the contrasting fortunes of the two clubs over the past two decades.
But really, for the purposes of this preview, we only need to focus on one piece of information: Chelsea have won each of the last seven encounters with Southampton.
Last season we beat the Saints 1-0 and 2-0 at the Bridge in the league and FA Cup respectively, with a 3-2 win on the south coast sandwiched in-between.
In the reverse fixture this term, we triumphed 3-0 courtesy of strikes from Hazard, Barkley and Morata.
How the Match Will Be WonAfter a poor start to the campaign, Southampton sacked Mark Hughes and replaced him with the little-known Austrian, Ralph Hasenhuttl.
It appeared to be a smart move, with the Saints beating both Arsenal and Huddersfield in his first pair of starts in charge.
But the honeymoon period is seemingly over, with defeats to West Ham and Manchester City following.
The new manager hasn’t reinvented the wheel, and will play an approximation of a 4-2-3-1 system on Wednesday.
It may feature young Kayne Ramsay – born this millennium, if you like to be made to feel old – at right back, and the 18-year-old will have his work cut out with Hazard tasked to isolate himself against the youngster.
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Otherwise, it’s the usual mix of players pulling on the red-and-white shirt, with Charlie Austin restored to the starting eleven – and perfectly capable of putting the ball in the net, supported by the likes of Mario Lemina and Nathan Redmond.
To give you an idea of how Southampton operate, nine of their last ten Premier League matches have seen both teams score. That suggests those in attendance at the Bridge could be in for an entertaining contest….hopefully, with the end result to go with it.