Chelsea striker Diego Costa struck his 50th English Premier League goal as the Blues beat Southampton 4-2 at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to extend their lead to seven points, putting them in pole position to lift the 2016-17 title.
Antonio Conte had decided to start Diego Costa and Eden Hazard on the bench on Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Tottenham Hotspur. ,But against Southampton, the Italian manager restored them to the starting XI and the rested stars proved to be decisive yet again.
Hazard, who had been crucial in securing that thrilling win over Spurs, proved just why he is one of the world’s best wingers by finishing Costa’s lay off in the 5th minute to give Chelsea a roaring start.
Southampton, the 2016-17 EFL Cup finalists, were caught sleeping as despite having multiple players inside their box, allowed Hazard to run in and beat Fraser Forster with ease.
They, however, didn't let the early setback rattle them and equalised via ex-Chelsea midfield Oriol Romeu in the 17th minute. James Ward-Prowse’s corner had found Manolo Gabbiadini in the box. But as the Italian was forced wide due to the trajectory of the ball, he deftly passed it across the face of goal for Romeu to tap in.
The away side’s equaliser briefly put the Chelsea faithful on edge as only weeks ago, Crystal Palace had stunned the league leaders at Stamford Bridge. Conte urged his side to restore their lead before the break and as the clock ticked on, it seemed the second-half would begin with the teams deadlocked.
However, much to the Saints’ chagrin they conceded a soft goal on the stroke of half-time. Marcos Alonso headed N’Golo Kante’s long ball across the goal and Gary Cahill promptly headed past Forster.
Chelsea began the second-half as they had started the first, scoring early via Costa, who outmuscled Ryan Bertrand to meet Cesc Fabregas’ cross, his header leaving Forster with no chance in the 53rd minute.
With a lead of two goals, the Blues kept possession, looking to hit Southampton on the counter and almost had a fourth when Hazard set up Kante, but Forster came out of his goal quickly to narrow the angle, making an important save.
Chelsea weren't to be denied a fourth, however, as Costa got his 19th goal in a brilliant manner, playing a one-two first with Hazard and then with Pedro before finishing at the near post in the 89th minute.
Southampton scored a consolation goal late in injury-time when former Blues man Bertrand headed home full-back Cedric Soares’ cross. But the home crowd continued cheering.
While Spurs have a game in hand, it will not be an easy one as they are to travel to in-form Crystal Palace and should they drop points, the title-race may well be over.
For Chelsea, the win comes at a crucial juncture in the season as losses to Palace and Manchester United had raised doubts in recent weeks. While a daunting trip to Everton on Sunday awaits, they will fancy their chances against any side.