Southampton's Rickie Lambert Loosens Chelsea's Grip on a Top-Four Spot

Southampton Fans

Chelsea's campaign entered a defining period here, with the first of seven matches in 19 days that will determine just what can be salvaged from confused mess of a season, and yet they have still started with a splutter.

The European champions were outplayed for long periods in succumbing to Southampton, a team with other priorities but some form against the better sides in the division, to leave the familiar chants of disgust from the away section echoing around the arena late on. Rafael Benítez must be used to that by now: one debatable team selection, a questionable substitution or fitful display is all it takes for the mood to turn sour again these days.

This was a potentially damaging loss as Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal prospered elsewhere. The grip on the top-four place the hierarchy consider so critical has been loosened again and, if the first of those seven matches is lost with a team that must have been relatively fresh, it hardly bodes well for what is to follow. Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup on Monday. There are fixtures home and away against Rubin Kazan, London derbies against Fulham and Spurs, and a visit from relegation threatened Sunderland. An early win in the run would have bolstered belief, but a team boasting seven changes from the victory against West Ham in their last outing felt disjointed. Even feeble at times.

Some of the cavalry were called upon late on – how the visitors missed Juan Mata, absent with a temperature – but they were chasing the game by then courtesy of a magnificent free-kick from Rickie Lambert and Southampton's overall energy and industry. Mauricio Pochettino had only beaten Manchester City and Liverpool in his eight games in charge prior to this occasion, but his team seem to relish matches that get the juices flowing. Only in the latter stages, when Chelsea finally found width and urgency, did they creak in alarm, yet they resisted, threatened on the break and will feel more assured in a position akin to mid-table.

The displays mustered by Nathaniel Clyne and Jack Cork – who played 155 league games for six different teams while on loan from Chelsea, but not one for his parent club – caught the eye, but the hosts were superb throughout. Admittedly, Manchester United will presumably confront Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard down the Londoners' left on Monday, where Southampton tore into Ryan Bertrand and Marko Marin, but Pochettino's charges did all required of them. Had Frank Lampard's late free-kick dipped under the crossbar and in, it would have felt unjust.

Instead it was the hosts who would bask in notable success. They had prised their opponents apart far too easily when on the front foot through the first period. Southampton had already spurned fine chances through Jason Puncheon and Jay Rodriguez when Lambert fed the ball in-field from the left flank for the England under-21 forward to collect. Rodriguez's exchange with Steven Davis was slick and utterly flummoxed the visiting defence, helpless and aghast as they were bypassed at speed, with the finish crisp and low beyond Petr Cech.

John Terry's riposte 10 minutes later, a thumping downward header from Marin's corner, represented the visitors' first legitimate effort on goal, the centre-half the only player willing to attack the ball as it arced into the six-yard box. Yet, even with that crunched finish to spur them on, Chelsea lapsed again. Branislav Ivanovic was swiftly fouling Lambert 25 yards out, with the forward's 14th goal of a productive first campaign at this level curled in from distance. Opponents really should know better, given his established prowess at set-plays, but Chelsea are a team with no time to learn.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield at St Mary's Stadium, for guardian.co.uk on Saturday 30th March 2013 17.05 Europe/London

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