Chelsea traveled down to the south coast for the first game of a grueling schedule that will see them play six games in 16 days. John Terry returned to the starting XI for only the second Premier League game of Rafa Benitez's reign, whilst Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were left on the bench.
Chelsea picked up where they left off when the two met in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge. Having led 2-0 at halftime back in January, they conceded twice in the second half and were lucky to salvage a point. They were on the back foot from the beginning at St. Mary's and went a goal down after 23 minutes. Rickie Lambert baffled the back four with some clever passing with Steven Davis and Jay Rodriguez, releasing the latter to finish coolly past Petr Cech.
Chelsea pulled one back 10 minutes later when Southampton's defence failed to pick up John Terry from a corner, which allowed the captain to head home his second Premier League goal of the season. Two minutes later, Ryan Bertrand fouled Steven Davis outside the area, and Lambert stepped up to take the resulting free kick.
Cech had lined up his wall the way he wanted but was left stranded as they failed to jump, allowing the shot to curl up into the top-left corner of the goal. A shot from Victor Moses was well saved by substitute 'keeper Kelvin Davies, and a Frank Lampard free kick went well over the bar—and that was pretty much that.
Fernando Torres failed to have a single shot on goal again, and without Mata, Chelsea lacked any real energy.
With seven changes to the side that recorded a 3-1 win against West Ham, it is obvious that Chelsea were not at full strength, but the players who were on the pitch needed to do better. They need to address this quickly as the damage that will be done by a defeat in the FA Cup could be irretrievable.
Rafa Benitez has already made his excuses about how difficult it is to play games in such quick succession, but that is the reality of the situation. In order to save anything from a season that promised so much but has offered only brief, inconsistent flashes of potential, a win against Manchester United is crucial.
Chelsea's morale is battered, and with the battle for fourth place getting tighter every week, they need to be in a winning frame of mind or risk losing out on the cash-generating Champions League for next season, just in time for UEFA's enforcement of Financial Fair Play.
If Gary Cahill and Juan Mata are fit, they must return to the starting lineup, along with Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard. John Obi Mikel needs to play in the holding role, with Lampard or Ramires partnering him. Demba Ba is the only logical choice as a striker, but whether one is necessary with the Three Amigos is debatable. Whatever Benitez decides to do, it is vital that he has learned his lessons from the original fixture against United in order to prevent a meltdown.
Chelsea are at the crunch point of their season, and it will take a complete overhaul of the apathetic attitude displayed at St. Mary's to see them satisfied at the end of May.