Premier League: Southampton vs Chelsea Preview
Chelsea travel to the South Coast to face Southampton with the knowledge that taking maximum points back to London is vital in their quest to secure Champions League qualification. At the other end of the spectrum, struggling Southampton will be looking to steer clear of relegation to make it back-to-back victories for the first time since November.
Rafa Benitez is likely to make several changes from their 2-0 win over West Ham, with the Spaniard keeping one eye firmly placed on their mouthwatering FA Cup quarter-final clash with Manchester United on Monday.
But they will need to be at their peak to overcome a Southampton side who are currently embroiled in a relegation battle and are brimming with confidence on the back of their excellent 3-1 victory over Liverpool two weeks ago.
However, with the international break preventing them from gaining momentum from their unexpected triumph, Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino knows it will be a big task for his team to secure a win against third-placed Chelsea. The team were crushed 5-1 by the West London club when Nigel Adkins was in charge, and the tactician will be keen to erase those memories with a decent result.
The Argentine is likely to name an unchanged side from the team that started against Liverpool, although the former Espanyol coach will be sweating on the fitness of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Jos Hooiveld ahead of Saturday's clash, with the latter likely to be replaced by Jose Fonte at the heart of the defense.
Jason Puncheon, one of the stars of the season under ex-coach Adkins, is likely to start on the bench if Lallana passes his fitness test, with Jay Rodriguez preferred on the right wing after his goal in the crucial 3-1 win a fortnight back.
Uruguayan midfielder Gaston Ramirez is almost certain to start in the playmaker role behind veteran striker Ricky Lambert, with the 31-year-old hoping to add to his tally against Chelsea after scoring in the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge earlier this season.
Former Chelsea trainee Jack Cork, who spent five years at Stamford Bridge before leaving the club in 2011, will line up alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in the center of midfield.
The visitors will be looking to close the gap on second-placed Manchester City to just one point with an expected victory at St. Marys, but with the club facing the unenviable prospect of four games in eight days, Benitez is expected to make up to four changes.
Perhaps the biggest inclusion is a rare start for John Terry, with the former England captain set to replace Gary Cahill, who picked up a knee injury while on international duty. The 32-year-old has not featured regularly this season and is likely to lead the side out on Saturday afternoon.
Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard, who both scored in the Blues' last Premier League outing, are set to be rested with John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses taking their places in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
In attack, Benitez is set to hand Torres the lone striker role ahead of Demba Ba despite the Senegal striker's record of three goals in two games against the Saints this season. The Spaniard was not called up for Spain's 1-0 victory over France and trained with the Under-21's during the international break.
Southampton: Rickie Lambert
If the Saints are to get anything out of this game, they will need to ensure their prolific striker is in top form. Lambert is currently the top goalscoring Englishman in the Premier League with 13 goals to his name to cap an impressive season for the former Bristol Rovers man.
With superb heading ability and excellent movement in the area, Lambert has already scored against Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool this season. Can he score once again at Chelsea?
Chelsea: Juan Mata
If it was not evident in his debut season where he won the Player of the Year award, Juan Mata has certainly ensured his name is the first on the Chelsea team sheet these days with some stunning performances in 2012-13.
The first player to reach 10 goals and 10 assists this season, Mata is indispensable to the team and his creative genius has been one of the few bright sparks in a disappointing season for the Blues. Southampton will need a plan to keep him quiet, with his vision and ability to find space usually resulting in a goal for his team, either for himself or a teammate.
Southampton 1-2 Chelsea—The Saints will give it their all but Chelsea are beginning to regain the form they showed at the start of the season. With the likes of Mata and Oscar in the side, the Blues should do just about enough to see off Pochettino's side to send them further into the relegation battle.
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