Giroud sparks unlikely Chelsea revival as Blues finally show fight for Conte
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three points on Southampton 2-3 Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon:
1. Chelsea finally show some fight
At half time, as Chelsea stumbled in 1-0 down to struggling Southampton, it was tempting to wonder whether Antonio Conte would make it to the Wembley when his side meet Southampton again in the FA Cup semifinal later this month. One stirring fightback and two Olivier Giroud goals later, though, it was clear the fallen Premier League champions retain the ability to summon the steel of old.
Mark Hughes' men were rewarded in the first half for defending with discipline and attacking with purpose against a group of Chelsea players who appeared disinterested in their fortunes, led by a head coach in Conte whose touchline demeanour reinforced Gianluca Vialli's recent claim that Conte can't wait to leave.
The home side's breakthrough came in the 21st minute, as Chelsea academy graduate Ryan Bertrand raced into the space vacated by Davide Zappacosta, left a toiling Cesar Azpilicueta in his wake and picked out an unmarked Dusan Tadic, who had the simplest of finishes for only his fourth Premier League goal of the season.
Chelsea's defensive lethargy was perfectly in keeping with the laboured, mechanical possession play that saw them fail to register a single shot on target in the first half. The only impression of any kind the visitors made prior to the break came in the form of Marcos Alonso's studs raking down Shane Long's calf; the Spaniard was lucky to avoid any sanction from referee Mike Dean.
Southampton had not scored twice at St Mary's since their last Premier League home win in November, but the generosity of Chelsea's defence knew no bounds. Jan Bednarek, making his first league start for the Saints, was left unmarked at the back post to meet James Ward-Prowse's inviting free-kick with a controlled low finish to double their lead.
Conte responded by immediately introducing Giroud and Pedro for Alvaro Morata and Zappacosta, and Chelsea finally stirred. The France international powered in a near-post header from Alonso's cross on 71 minutes, then laid the foundation for Eden Hazard to slam home the equaliser.
As a panicked Southampton reeled, Giroud pounced again to complete the fightback, chesting down Alonso's header and finding the bottom corner.
Chelsea's resilience has come too late to salvage a Premier League top-four place, but it might just be enough to get them to an FA Cup final -- and see Conte to the end of a roller-coaster season with more lows than highs.
2. Giroud everything Morata isn't for Blues
There could be no better stage than St Mary's and no better opponents than Southampton to stake a claim for a starting spot at Wembley later this month, and Giroud needed only 17 minutes on the pitch to accomplish what Morata failed to even threaten in just over an hour.
His arrival from Arsenal in January was greeted with minimum fanfare, but Giroud didn't take long to win Chelsea supporters over with his work rate and selfless commitment to making his team and teammates better.
Almost immediately on his introduction at St Mary's the France international imposed himself on Maya Yoshida, the wily but physically limited Southampton centre-back who had gleefully bullied Chelsea's record signing.
Southampton had no answer to Giroud's aerial dominance and, once the fear created from his first goal pinned them in their own penalty area, they were doomed. Conte's "point of reference" played a key role in Hazard's equaliser before firing in the winner himself.
Morata has too often this season brought the petulance of Diego Costa without the production, and could do worse than observe the man who is threatening to take his starting spot. If Chelsea are to have any chance of salvaging silverware from this season, they need a striker as imposing as he is deadly.
3. Southampton slide toward the abyss
Chelsea weren't the only team to show fight at St Mary's. One week after giving Arsenal all they could handle at the Emirates, Southampton again impressed as underdogs here, only to have their hearts broken in the final minutes by top-six opponents once more.
Hughes has clearly learned from the mistakes made in that torrid first half against West Ham last month; Southampton frustrated Chelsea for long spells with a deep and massed defence, while the pace of Bertrand and the constant motion of Long caused problems at the other end.
Points, though, are paramount at this stage of the season and Hughes has now taken none from a possible nine. Three of Southampton's final five matches are away from St Mary's, and one of the two remaining home assignments is a Manchester City side that will probably want to end their season in emphatic fashion on the final day.
Southampton lie three points from safety and while Hughes appears to have made them more dangerous going forward -- they had scored just 29 goals in 30 Premier League matches prior to his appointment -- their defensive fragility, mental as much as physical, was exposed as soon as Giroud entered the fray.
The abiding sense is of a club, once the envy of many in the Premier League, coming to the end of its cycle in the top flight. Hughes will do very well to turn the tide this late in the day.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.