Sunday’s clash between Crystal Palace and Chelsea, it is fair to say, will not be included on many end-of-season lists remembering the best games of 2018/19. There were very few chances at either end of the pitch at Selhurst Park, with N’Golo Kante dispatching perhaps the only clear-cut opportunity of the game to give the visitors a 1-0 win.
Chelsea’s next assignment, a home game against Southampton on Wednesday, again featured little in the way of goalmouth action. On this occasion the Blues were not able to find the back of the net at all, as Ralph Hasenhuttl’s charges succeeded in frustrating the top-four aspirants.
With both Olivier Giroud and Pedro Rodriguez sidelined through injury, Sarri fielded Alvaro Morata through the middle and Eden Hazard on the left-hand side of a three-man attack. It took Hazard just over three minutes to produce his first moment of inspiration, the Belgian curling a fabulous pass in behind Jannik Vestergaard for Willian to chase. The Chelsea man was just beaten to the ball by Angus Gunn, making his first Premier League start between the sticks for Southampton, but it was evidence of the hosts’ early intent.
Unfortunately for Sarri and co., that was one of the few times Chelsea got in behind the Saints’ rearguard in the first half. David Luiz set up Kante’s winner against Palace with a wonderful clipped pass over the top, something he tried to replicate on several occasions here. Hazard brought down one such ball brilliantly and saw his shot pushed wide by Gunn, but Southampton would have been reasonably happy that Chelsea were relying on their centre-half lofting difficult passes beyond their backline.
Sarri’s men actually looked most threatening when they were able to attack in transition, usually after Southampton had pushed up in an attempt to press their opponents high up the field. Hasenhuttl’s side did this a few times in the opening exchanges but then settled into a compact defensive shape when they did not have the ball, and Chelsea were continually unable to find gaps and create meaningful chances. Seven of their nine shots in the opening 45 minutes were blocked, a statistic which evidences how difficult they found it to get clear glimpses of goal.
The west Londoners began the second period well, but after failing to break the deadlock early on they reverted to the same patterns as the first half, hoarding possession but doing little of meaning with it. Hazard cut inside to test Gunn again in the 58th minute, but it was a comfortable save from the Southampton goalkeeper; two minutes later Luiz picked out the Belgian with another ball over the top, but this time his touch eluded him as Gunn came out to smother.
The Saints seemed to grow in confidence from that point onwards, pushing further up the pitch and mounting occasional attacks of their own. Chelsea’s struggles were summed up by Jorginho’s decision to take a speculative long-range shot in the 66th minute; the midfield metronome rarely pulls the trigger from distance, instead choosing to circulate possession and play probing passes, but even he had grown frustrated with his team’s inability to pierce Southampton’s back five.
Morata was unfortunate to have a goal chalked off when he was deemed to be offside after collecting a pass from substitute Cesc Fabregas, but ultimately Chelsea did not do enough with their 71.7 per cent of possession. This was undoubtedly a missed opportunity to pick up another three points in a round of fixtures which brought victories for each of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester United, with the Blues now only three points ahead of the fifth-placed Gunners as they seek a return to the Champions League next season.
“I think that we played a very good match for 80 metres of the pitch, then we were in trouble in last 20 metres. We created opportunities, not too much, but it’s not easy to create a lot of goal opportunities in this kind of match because they were very low in density, very compact. So it wasn’t really very easy,” Sarri told reporters in his post-match press conference.
“Of course, if you are able to score the first goal then you can create a lot of opportunities because you can find spaces, so it’s easy. But we have to try and solve the problem of the last 15-20 metres, because in the last matches we were in full control of the match everywhere, but for us it’s not easy in this moment to score the first goal. We have to solve this problem.”