White hot Eden Hazard puts Chelsea on their way
Belgian forward continues stunning form as Sarri’s side keep up the pace at the top
Eden Hazard celebrates opening the scoring for Chelsea at St Mary’s. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters
This felt like the Chelsea of old at times. The result was all that mattered to Maurizio Sarri and he was happy to see his side keep pace with Liverpool and Manchester City with a clinical victory.
Eden Hazard provided the inspiration just when Chelsea were threatening to get bogged down, Ross Barkley grabbed his first goal since joining from Everton in January and even Álvaro Morata had a smile on his face after scoring for the second time in three days. Sarri can keep insisting that his team are not title contenders but it is difficult to ignore them when the Italian has introduced himself to English football by winning six and drawing two of his first eight games in the Premier League.
There was rarely any danger of Chelsea suffering a Europa League hangover against Southampton, who languish three points above the bottom three after suffering yet again at St Mary’s. Sarri’s side were back at full strength after experimenting in their victory over Vidi last Thursday and they did not hesitate to take the game by the scruff of the neck, dominating possession and barely allowing their opponents a touch of the ball during the opening exchanges.
Much to the frustration of the home fans, Southampton were obliging hosts. They urged their players to push up but that was easier said than done when Jorginho had helped Chelsea achieve total control of midfield. Marcos Alonso had the freedom to roam forward from left-back and there was danger whenever Willian, darting inside from the right, broke into the space in front of Southampton’s defence.
Chelsea’s high press had a smothering effect, forcing Southampton to retreat towards their own area. There were times when Mark Hughes’s 3-4-3 system morphed into a 5-4-1 and the visitors almost went ahead when Willian played in Hazard in the eighth minute. Cédric Soares raced back into position to throw himself in front of two shots from the Belgian, however, and Southampton breathed a sigh of relief when Willian’s deflected effort clipped the top of the bar.
The frustration for Hughes, however, was that the opening goal arrived just when Southampton appeared to have settled. Chelsea, who host Manchester United after the international break, had found it difficult to create clear openings for Olivier Giroud and there were times when they threatened to undermine themselves with sterile domination. Yet after trying to break down the red and white wall with a series of long and intricate passing moves, they punished a tentative attempt from Southampton to play out from the back in the 30th minute.
Wesley Hoedt sent a lazy pass to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and the Danish midfielder failed to spot Barkley in close attendance. Barkley, who caught the eye after being picked instead of Mateo Kovacic, won possession and registered his first assist for 18 months by releasing Hazard, who was never going to pass up the opportunity to score his eighth goal of the season.
It was a galling way for Southampton to concede, especially as Danny Ings had wasted a glorious chance five minutes earlier. Hughes’s side were on the front foot at that point and there were howls of disbelief when Ings volleyed over from close range after a fine cross from Ryan Bertrand. Hazard would show the Southampton forward how to finish. He steadied himself, picked his spot and stroked the ball high to the left of Alex McCarthy, Southampton’s goalkeeper.
A feeling of resignation threatened to engulf Southampton, although at least they tried to drag themselves back into the game at the start of the second half. Hughes switched to a back four, replacing Jan Bednarek with Oriol Romeu, but the gloom deepened when Bertrand missed an easy chance to equalise.
Chelsea punished their former left-back’s profligacy in the 57th minute. Giroud’s acrobatic volley from Willian’s deep free-kick was going wide but Barkley, who is back in the England squad for the first time in two and a half years, was in the right place to bundle in his first goal since May 2017.
Southampton, who have only won one of their last 15 league games at home, were never coming back from that blow. Though Hughes’s side kept Kepa Arrizabalaga honest with a couple of efforts from long range, Chelsea added a third when more brilliance from Hazard presented Morata with the chance to dink the ball over McCarthy.