12:30 BST, Saturday 14th April, St Mary’s Stadium (Southampton, England) Sky Sports
Mark Hughes may have arrived at St Mary’s last month with little to lose, however, his new club are on the verge of losing in a big way. Despite having an extra game than their rivals still to play, the gap to safety is slowly growing.
Three consecutive defeats and six league matches without a win is seeing hope fade for a Saints side who like their new manager, have lost each of the previous 4 meetings with the Blues.
While Chelsea have no such relegation fears, Antonio Conte is currently casting the shadow of a defeated man. Having watched victory slip through Chelsea’s fingers again last weekend, his side are now ten points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with only six games remaining.
With questions of the future continuing to follow Conte’s every move, anything other than a win this weekend will once more draw negative headlines while endangering their chances of holding onto fifth position.
Last Time Out
Arsenal 3-2 Southampton (Premier League)
The Saints showed fighting spirit but ultimately fell short against a much-changed Arsenal side who had one eye on Europe. Shane Long had provided some early cheer for the visitors in what was his first league start since January, but the Gunners took advantage of some unusually weak defending by the Saints to go into the break ahead.
There was much better displays from players further up the pitch, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg again proving to be a good find for the Saints this season with a controlled performance in the middle of the pitch.
James Ward-Prowse was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet in his 200th game for the Saints but Charlie Austin did achieve this after coming off the bench. Some late drama saw Jack Stevens sent off during added time as frustrations snapped on both sides to leave each club with ten men but significantly, the Saints with no points from a determined showing.
Chelsea 1-1 West Ham United (Premier League)
An emotionally charged game celebrated the life of Ray Wilkins prior to kick-off but saw Chelsea lack the control which the former England midfielder was famed for providing. It was another lacklustre performance from the Blues who appear to have fallen into an inescapable slump of form through 2018.
There was another mixed display from Álvaro Morata who twice scored but twice saw his efforts ruled out for offside. He did assist Cesar Azpilicueta’s first-half goal, however, but looked weak in trying to hold up the ball in the Hammers half.
It was another strong performance by N’Golo Kanté who covered every blade of grass but the Blues problems in attack continue. Cesc Fàbregas again suffered an ineffectual game as a creative force in the team with Chelsea struggling to gel their forwards into a cohesive attack.
West Ham’s second-half equaliser failed to ignite a response from the hosts who are now all but condemned to a finish outside this season’s top-four following this result.
Jack Stephens is suspended following his late red card last weekend which could see Hughes revert to a back-four as opposed to last week’s experiment with a 3-4-3 formation.
Sam McQueen (groin) will also miss out with doubts over the availability of Steven Davis (Achilles) Shane Long (knock) and Mario Lemina (illness) which will need assessing closer to kick-off.
Conte will still be missing David Luiz (knee) Ross Barkley (fitness) and Ethan Ampadu (ankle) when he makes his team selection this weekend with Davide Zappacosta (ankle) still doubtful although Pedro has fully recovered from a knock.
The Chelsea boss could well field the same outfield starting lineup for a third consecutive match, however, Thibaut Courtois is widely expected to be restored to the team.
Key Battle: Charlie Austin (Southampton) vs Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)
The Saints looked to have much more attacking threat last weekend, not least through Austin who rose from the bench to score during his 18-minute cameo.
Having scored 4 goals from as many home matches directly before his recent hamstring injury, Austin was a player to provide real hope to the Saints fans. With a starting place likely to be awarded to him this week, he could again prove to Southampton’s greatest hope.
Having failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last 8 fixtures since beating Hull City in the FA Cup in January, Chelsea’s defensive erosion has proved costly. Despite enjoying an impressive season in the heart of the Blues centre backs, Christensen’s form has dipped of late in unison with Chelsea’s defensive decline.
With a repeat of this fixture on the schedule for next weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals, both teams will have solid reasons for wanting to take a victory away from St Mary’s on Saturday. While Chelsea will want to strike a morale-sapping blow to their opponents ahead of next weekend, Southampton will be prioritising this result far above next weekend’s clash.
Collecting three points in the league will be the only thing on the Saints mind when they take to the pitch for the lunchtime kick-off. With the teams above them all slowly accumulating points, a positive result is necessary to prevent them slipping further into trouble within the relegation zone.
After showing late determination in London last Sunday against the Gunners, more of the same will be required against these Blue Londoners in what is most definitely a crunch encounter for the Saints.
There’s a definite malaise descended over Stamford Bridge during the past two months. Deepening with each passing week, there are increasing reasons to believe Antonio Conte is a dead man walking. With speculation regarding possible candidates to replace the Italian continuing to spread like wildfire, the only surprise left from the club would seem to be a decision to stick with their man.
Within such an environment, the team’s lack of form can be considered a predictable piece of collateral damage. While there has been a notable lack of stories citing Conte “losing the dressing room”, motivating his players has been visibly damaged by these constant reports in the press.
With an FA Cup win needed to salvage some respectability from this season, to do so in the shadow of disharmony would be a truly cap-tipping achievement for Conte.
Prediction: Southampton 1-2 Chelsea
Southampton will be desperate to take a positive result from this match and given Chelsea’s recent form, they will be relatively confident of achieving one.
An FA Cup semi-final next weekend is Chelsea’s last chance to claim silverware this season and a strong performance here will be their motivation in providing a much-needed boost for the players ahead of their most important game remaining this year.