Has Branislav Ivanovic's Southampton Winner Ended John Terry's Chelsea Career?

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Has Branislav Ivanovic's Southampton Winner Ended John Terry's Chelsea Career?
Julian Finney/Getty Images

It was only on Friday that Branislav Ivanovic was telling Bleacher Report how he expected new Chelsea loan signing Alexandre Pato to score the goals that would help continue the salvage operation the Blues' season has become.

Instead, it was the Chelsea defender doing just that after his 89th-minute winner against Southampton on Saturday.

Chelsea's 2-1 victory moved them up to 11th in the Premier League table, putting them on the brink of breaking into the top 10 for the first time all season. Not only that, but it meant Chelsea recorded back-to-back league wins for the first time in 2015/16.

We're entering March, so those milestones should have been achieved a long time before now. It doesn't make them any less pertinent, though; they're the markers for any team to show they're moving in the right direction.

Just as goals are for any player also. That Ivanovic scored his winner when he did is a significant moment in his and Chelsea's campaign as it reinforced just how impressive both player and team have been in recent weeks.

Ivanovic has rightly taken his fair share of the flak amid Chelsea's demise this term, but he's hinting at a return to his best after promising displays against Paris Saint-Germain and Southampton.

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It's all been down to the loss of John Terry. With Kurt Zouma out for the rest of the season, Terry's hamstring injury, picked up against Newcastle United on Feb. 13, has meant Guus Hiddink has been forced to move Ivanovic into the centre to partner Gary Cahill.

The Serbian may have spent the past eight seasons on the right, but he was a centre-back when he was signed in 2008. Now he's showing why the time has come for him to move back there permanently.

Often isolated at right-back, Ivanovic looks more assured playing through the middle. He isn't being exposed as frequently by pacey wingers, allowing him to read the game and marshal proceedings instead.

If Ivanovic continues in that vein, it really could be curtains for Terry.

The Chelsea captain has already dropped the bombshell he will not be offered a new contract beyond this season. That he announced that smacked of attempting to leverage a new deal based on public opinion.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

On an emotional level, it's worked to a point, causing much consternation among Chelsea fans who are struggling to foresee a future without their captain, leader, legend. There's also been a concern where this Chelsea team will go without Terry at the heart of it.

He may be 35 years old, yet Terry remains a class act. He's still among the Premier League's finest defenders and an influential figure at Stamford Bridge, which is why Chelsea have stressed contract talks with him are not over, per the Guardian.

Chelsea's message has been about keeping the avenues of dialogue open with their captain. It's been a PR operation to appease unhappy fans; it's equally influenced by the fact the club doesn't want to lose Terry prematurely if their new manager in the summer—whoever that may be—demands he stays.

Ivanovic's performances these past few weeks, though, have been a public audition for him to step into Terry's shoes next term. He's been wearing the captain's armband in Terry's absence, and he's scoring the sort of goals that have defined Terry's Chelsea career.

That's captain material right there, doing it when nobody else can—behaving and performing like a leader should.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Were this a race for the ticket to run for the U.S. presidency, Ivanovic would've cleaned up in the primaries. No other Chelsea player has shown he has the capability of stepping in to fill that void quite like he has. Ivanovic's task now is to show there is real substance behind him and that life after JT isn't going to be as bleak as we first thought.

For all the sentiment that surrounds Terry, that's where the biggest concern lies. Chelsea fans want to know where the club goes without him. If there's a suitable path laid out, it makes accepting his departure that bit easier.

Quite whether Chelsea's solution was to make Ivanovic the heart of their defence, nobody knows other than the club's hierarchy. The important thing, however, is Chelsea have an alternative regardless of whether they have stumbled upon it.

Those fears of having to rebuild an entire back line in the summer are subsiding with each game; Chelsea's momentum ahead of 2016/17 is gradually building.

It's Ivanovic's job to sustain it.

Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @garryhayes.

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