The final steps to the Premier League title, if indeed that is where Chelsea are heading, are proving to be hard work for Antonio Conte who watched his team take the lead, lose it, regain it and even launched a kick at the medical bag by his managerial bench before victory was at last assured.
The medical bag survived intact, and so too did Chelsea’s grip on this game which leaves them requiring a maximum of four wins from their final five games to seal the title in Conte’s first season. There will be fewer points needed if Tottenham Hotspur fail to beat Crystal Palace in the second act of the midweek title race installment on Wednesday but gradually the last bumps in the road are being negotiated.
In the end, the scoreline left no margin for doubt but Claude Puel’s team were arguably the better side in the first half until Chelsea took control after the break with two goals from Diego Costa, his first in seven games for the club. He was one of the outstanding performers and so too was Cesc Fabregas, deployed in preference to Pedro and Willian and the architect of the best of Chelsea’s attacking play.
There was enough security before Costa added the fourth for Conte to send on John Terry with four minutes left, which delighted the home crowd and must have offered a crumb of comfort to the man himself. He had not played a minute in the league since Nov 5 and he will be pleased that the second goal conceded by Chelsea, in the third minute of time added on, a towering Ryan Bertrand header, was nothing to do with him.
At this stage of the season, and at this stage of the title race, what Chelsea really needed was a mid-table opponent with their summer holidays at the back of their mind and the long wind-down to mid-May already beginning. What they got was a mid-table opponent who had spied an opportunity to make life difficult for the title-chasers who were going through a wobble.
Conte’s team went in at half-time having snatched the lead in the only minute that referee Lee Mason added on for injury-time and while Gary Cahill’s header was perfectly executed it gave Chelsea an advantage that had been far from a certainty.
Southampton conceded within the first five minutes, and before they had really woken up judging by the time Diego Costa was allowed to delay his cut-back in the area by Maya Yoshida. The Chelsea striker, chasing Cesc Fabregas’ ball, was permitted to wait unchallenged for Hazard to dash into position before delivering the pass that the Belgian pinged into the far corner of Fraser Forster’s goal.
That was early days indeed, with Southampton yet to adjust to the formation that Conte had picked of Fabregas and Hazard just behind Costa, but once they did the away team found their stride with purpose. Steven Davis and Oriol Romeu were exceptional in midfield, and there was one player who stood out from the rest on the basis of his sheer talent.
Sofiane Boufal is Southampton’s record transfer, and like Hazard, he arrived in English football from Lille although he has not yet converted that considerable talent to become a regular matchwinner. That said, some of his touches were electrifying and Southampton’s confidence on the ball meant that for the ten minutes following Chelsea’s opener they had more than 61 per cent of the possession.
There was a let-off on 18 minutes when James Ward-Prowse’s mistake let in the Costa-Frabregas-Hazard triumvirate and the latter miscued his shot badly. The equaliser came from a Southamtpon corner that was allowed to travel right through the area and if you were looking for a culprit it was most likely Marcos Alonso who failed to get a head on it, and then failed to mark Romeu.
At the back post Manolo Gabbiadini had a shot saved by Thibaut Courtois and it fell nicely for Romeu, one of the two Chelsea old boys in red stripes, to tap the ball in. Southampton deserved their equaliser, although Conte’s team regrouped and came back hard for the final ten minutes of the half.
They finally got their breakthrough in injury-time when another cross thrown into the box was headed back down by Alonso. Costa launched himself at the overhead kick but he was a fraction too late, behind the man prepared to out his head in where it hurts – Cahill, who headed the ball down past Forster.
Costa had scored a third within nine minutes from a corner that should have been much better defended. Fabregas had opted to play it short to Hazard who, with few options available made a driving run towards the byline and cut the ball back to his team-mate. The trap had been sprung and from the right channel Fabregas could see the whole of the Southampton area and assess his options.
He picked out Costa at the backpost who went in over the top of Bertrand, another Chelsea old boy, and headed one in from close range. Fabregas came off with 14 minutes left to a standing ovation, the legs tiring and a booking hanging over his ever more exhausted tackling but he had done his job.
As for Southampton, the gap was too much to close especially a Chelsea back five and all but Costa between ball and the home goal for much of the second half. Boufal had tired by the hour and was replaced while Puel looked for new ways to try to get around this Conte defence.
Costa’s second was the best of the lot, coming from a double exchange with first Hazard and then Pedro before he drilled in his 51st career goal for the club. Bertrand was the second former Chelsea man to score on the night with a header from Cedric Soares’ cross that was a hard one for the home team’s defence to explain, although the job was done by then.
How Conte's tinkering paid off
Here's the how and why Chelsea beat Southampton, by Sam Dean. Enjoy!
And that's it! Chelsea are definitely going the win league, aren't they? That's a seven point gap with five games to play.
Southampton claim one back and not even they seem to care.
Great ball into the box from Soares and a perfectly placed header from Bertrand, who beats Cahill to a header to get the shot away, makes it 4-2.
90 mins +2
Niall Quinn has just given Costa the MOTM award, which is actually probably fair now he's scored two. Fabregas and Cahill were the other possibilities. Chelsea fans are singing "Antonio" and he acknowledges it with a little wave.
Wow. That is absolutely brilliant.
This is amazing build up play by Chelsea as Costa fires the ball into Hazard, gets a one-two back from Pedro and finishes low into the corner. That's like a Barcelona goal - one of the best goals I've seen this season.
Even better for Chelsea fans - John Terry started the move with a great interception inside his own area.
Off goes Moses, on comes Terry to big cheers from Stamford Bridge. Jay Rodriguez comes on for Gabbiadini but oddly nobody seems to care about that.
I think this is now a proper back five, with four in midfield and Matic has just been given the ball 35 yards out and so, by law, has had to shoot at goal.
Southampton defend with a really narrow back four, with the midfield doubling up in wide areas and it's stopping Chelsea being able to have much fun when they get to the final third.
John Terry is getting ready to come on and suddenly Pedro has room to run into! He gets just outside the box, puts the ball onto his right foot and shoots just wide.
KANTEEEEEEEEE saved! Hazard bursts forward on the counter-attack and is joined by Costa to his left and Kante to his right. He waits until he gets to the box, moving left to free up space for Kante but the Frenchman's attempt to lift the ball over the keeper is put behind for a corner. That comes to nothing.
Conte still isn't happy, as you'd expect, but he has reason to be. Chelsea are defending well from wide areas and any cross into the box is proving slightly difficult to deal with. Gabbiadini nearly control a cross with one touch and spins past central defenders but Courtois claims it.
More Southampton pressure ends in a corner as Kante comes across to help Moses at right-back.
Pedro comes on for Fabregas, who has been excellent tonight and probably Man of the Match, as the game begins to slow down.
Tadic has just been given the stupidest yellow card of the week, trying to shield the ball near the Chelsea corner flag, losing the decision for a throw in and then throwing the ball into the ground in anger. He knows instantly he's being booked for it and even the referee is like "what are you doing?".
And again Chelsea are completely caught out by the corner! Rivals will be watching this game with interest - every single corner has seen the defence fall apart. The delivery is excellent and the movement has completely caught most of the defenders by surprise. This time Gabbiadini finds space at the back post but can only hit the side netting. Conte is furious on the touchline.
Substitution for the Saints as Boufal comes off for Nathan Redmond, who is making his 100th Premier League appearance. He's on just in time for a free-kick from near the centre-circle which Ward-Prowse whips into the area but Luiz heads behind.
Great skill from Moses as he takes out two Southampton players with a quick two-footed move but then Fabregas is wiped out by Romeu (again) and the move breaks down.
Now Chelsea are taking their time on the ball and keeping it for a bit. After going all the way back to the keeper they work it forward incredibly quickly and out of almost nowhere, Alonso arrives in space to shoot from just outside the box and forces a save from Forster.
Romeu is booked for going clean through Fabregas, and when I say clean through, I mean dirty-ish. Dirty-ly. Hmmm. That could well be a revenge foul for the earlier tackle by Fabregas but regardless, it's a yellow card.
Chelsea have scored with all three of their shots on target.
Southampton now have three substitutes warming up... and have just won a corner as Courtois turns a shot from distance behind.
Costa scores his first goal in eight games!
The free-kick is dealt with but from the resulting corner, Hazard and Cesc link well to play it short and Cesc's cross to the back post gives Costa the opportunity to launch himself into a header which the keeper has no chance of saving. Well worked goal.
Chelsea are still being made to play on the counter-attack here, Southampton enjoying the share of possession until eventually Fabregas drops into midfield and they win the ball back. Costa is brought down by Yoshida and is booked, Chelsea have a decent free-kick chance now.
Chelsea aren't finding it easy to get out of their own half at the moment and Fabregas is booked for sliding into the back of Romeu as they try to break out of their defensive shape.
We're back! Southampton kick off and hit it long, step up and try to press. Chelsea straight into defensive mode.
Cahill celebrating his goal
No goal more representative of Gary Cahill than a sensible header fearlessly taken off the toe of a team-mate attempting an overhead kick— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) April 25, 2017
And that's it for the half! It's been very even so far but Chelsea just have that extra little edge that Southampton lack.
It's Gary Cahill!
The corner is cleared after being retaken due to various aggro in the box. Costa goes for a bicycle kick this time as the second ball is sent back into the box but Cahill gets there slightly quicker and heads low beyond the keeper.
Fabregas is commanded to SHOOT by the crowd when 30 yards out from goal, looks up and crosses to the back post for Alonso, who lets the ball come across him and attempts a bicycle kick. It nearly offers up a chance for the tap in but is cleared behind for a corner.
And the corner causes total havoc. They're all over the place while defending this - defenders hold onto runners from everywhere and they're actually lucky not to give away a clear goal-scoring opportunity there.
And Hazard is in! He fakes to shoot, cuts inside and leaves the defender on his back, but then doesn't shoot and tries to tee up Costa for the shot. The pass is too soft, Moses runs on to it and has his shot blocked.
Kante slips and wipes out Ward-Prowse with a slide tackle on the half way line (and is booked retrospectively) and then Boufal runs towards the box, is crowded out by Chelsea defenders and... wins a free-kick. Hmmm. I'm not sure about that one. Didn't look a foul to me, Clive.
Ward-Prowse wins a corner from the free-kick.
Cahill goes through the back of Ward-Prowse and gives away a free-kick, seconds before that Southampton had four men racing to close down only Azpilicueta but the forward pass didn't quite land.
That's Romeu tapping in to score the equaliser. Chelsea have a free-kick wide left and Fabregas should put in a decent delivery here.
And all of a sudden Chelsea burst into life! Kante brings Stamford Bridge to life with a dizzy run out on the right, the ball is moved into the box... it pings around... Costa goes down in the area! That must be a penalty.. but no! The referee doesn't give anything as Costa appears to be shoved from behind.
Matic listens to the crowd and shoots but wins a corner that is dealt with well.
Chelsea can't seem to find a way into this one. They're fouling Southampton players - who are full of energy - everywhere, can't get out of their defensive shape and have just conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box, wide. Ward-Prowse stands over it... whips it into the six yard box and Courtois dives to palm it away. As Southampton get the ball back towards their own keeper, Hazard is nearly played clean through and Forster has to be quick to clear before the Belgian can tackle him.
Bertrand knows he's about to be caught way out of position as Moses heads the ball forward for himself to chase and wipes the Nigerian out just outside the box. Southampton are completely in control here - Chelsea are playing like the away team; subdued and defensive.
Chelsea: Have gone 11 Premier League games without keeping a single clean sheet for the first time since December 1996 (13 games) #CHESOU— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 25, 2017
Fabregas looks up and spots a tiny gap to fire a pass into Matic, does so and the midfielder is almost able to control and get a one on one chance against the keeper... but he doesn't, so.... it hasn't worked out.
Southampton have equalised!
Luiz defends a free-kick well by heading the ball away, Davis shoots from distance and it's a corner. That corner is flicked on in the area and Gabbiadini pops up at the back post in space. He tries to squeeze the shot in from a tight angle but Romeu is there anyway to tap into an empty net.
Good possession play from Southampton. They have Chelsea pinned back in their own half.
Every time Matic gets on the ball within 30 yards of goal the entire crowd yells "SHOOOOOOT" (because of the FA Cup semi-final thunder strike) but he won't give into temptation. Let's hope that changes later because everyone loves a punt from 30 yards.
Fabregas moves into space, Kante spots it and plays a hard pass forward, Fabregas lays it to Moses with a beautiful controlled touch and Costa's first touch from Moses' cross is almost incredible. With one touch off a ball bent into the area, he nearly knocks it round a defender into a shooting position. He can't quite reach the ball though and it's shieded behind for a goal kick.
Hazard gets back to defend at left-back (!!!) and Chelsea defend more pressure. Southampton have worked a nice little move here and Boufal is unlucky to have his pass across the box blocked.
Luiz makes a brilliant interception as he steps up to block Davis' run but his forward pass to Costa is cut out by Cedric. The ball pings about a bit and a slip gives Fabregas the chance to play a pass forward to Costa, who lays it on to Hazard to shoot 25 yards out. He bends this one way wide.
Kante lets the PFA Player of the Year award go to his head and tries a clever reverse chipped pass over the top into the box. Goal kick. Now, now, N'Golo. We know you're good but you're not Pirlo.
Here's Hazard celebrating his goal:
Southampton are passing the ball around, making some nice runs off the ball and moving forward but Chelsea drop into their defensive shape, absorb the pressure and snap forward with ease. Costa is played in on the right again and wins a corner.
That really didn't take long.
Chelsea look good here. Kante sweeps the ball out wide left but Alonso wastes his cross, Luiz goes charging into a challenge on the left wing and Southampton just clear it away.
Great finish from Hazard! A quick Chelsea move causes danger as Yoshida doesn't get back into his defensive position quickly enough and the other centre-back (might be Stephens) doesn't step up. Costa is played onside, runs in behind and pulls a pass back to Hazard, who finishes superbly into the bottom corner.
Oooohhhh that's clever. Chelsea's defence are pulled into the centre of the box, the ball goes wide right and a cushioned volley puts it back in the middle. Courtois catches.
Kante is penalised for a foul from behind on Boufal as the Southampton player ran towards the back three at pace on a counter-attack. The free-kick is about 10 yards too far out to score from but Ward-Prowse might fancy a hit. Why not?
What a touch by Hazard! Chelsea are in control of the ball and moving from side to side and then a hit forward finds Hazard, who drops the ball onto Cesc's foot with one touch and goes looking for a return pass. Southampton block his path. He's already looking lively.
And then a ball swung in from wide right (Chelsea's Achilles heel) causes panic as Cahill and Luiz leave it to each other and Gabbiadini nearly nicks in to score.
And they're off!
Here come the teams
Both sets of players are in the tunnel. David Luiz is staring straight ahead, looking either focused or like he's trying to work out exactly where he left the remote control for the Apple TV.
Conte doesn't think Chelsea have an advantage playing before Spurs
"I think Cesc is a player that can play in different positions and now I think he is great personality at this point of the season and also on the bench Willian and Pedro give me options which is fundamental importance right now.
"I don't think it's an advantage playing a day before Tottenham."
Romeu is back
Player of the year
There he is. The PFA Player of the Year just warming up. Not pictured are the other four Kantes that I assume exist, like how world record marathon runners definitely either have a strategically placed twin or have developed illusions so that they can just the tube. Under three hours? There's no way that's real.
The title race
Hello everyone, JJ Bull here. Did you know that this game is
Because it is. If Chelsea mess up, the gap will be four points to second place and Spurs will have a game in hand, which they can try and win tomorrow.
Chelsea have the usual team out on the pitch, and FA Cup hero Willian makes way for Cesc Fabregas, presumably because Conte sees some sort of through-ball weakness in Southampton's defence.
The teams are in
Chelsea:Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Fabregas, Diego Costa, Hazard
Subs: Begovic, Ake, Terry, Chalobah, Willian, Pedro, Batshuayi
Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand; Romeu, Davis, Ward-Prowse; Tadic, Boufal; Gabbiadini
Subs: Hassen, Caceres, Clasie, Holbjerg, Long, Redmond, Rodriguez
What is it?
It's Chelsea against Southampton in the Premier League. The hosts have the chance to reopen a seven-point gap at the top of the table, with Spurs not playing until tomorrow.
When is it?
Tuesday 25 April - that's today!
What time is kick-off?
What TV channel is it on?
Sky Sports 1. Alternatively you can follow the match with us on this page!
What's the situation in the table?
Chelsea have a four-point cushion over Tottenham, and need five wins from their final six games to secure a fifth Premier League title.
What is the team news?
Antonio Conte's decision to drop Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Saturday's FA Cup semi-final against Spurs proved a stroke of genius, and both players will start here, fresh and raring to go after playing only the last half hour at Wembley.
Chelsea do have doubts over Gary Cahill, who missed that match with illness, and Willian, who was forced off with a knock.
Southampton have no fresh injury concerns after 10 days off since their defeat to Manchester City, but remain without Virgil van Dijk, Charlie Austin, Alex McCarthy, Sam McQueen and Matt Targett.
What are they saying?
Antonio Conte: "I have in my mind the starting 11 but tomorrow I want to check very well the physical consideration of every single player as our last game was an intense one and used energy.
"But we have trained very well this season and we have a lot of energy to face this type of situation.
"It is important for us to win and look at ourselves, but we all know that tomorrow it won't be easy because Southampton is a very good team with a good coach and good players."
Claude Puelon Oriol Romeu: "I think he's not far off [N'Golo] Kante. He recovers the ball so well and is a technical player.
"He's an important player for this team because he can do fantastic work to recover the ball and start the play. It's difficult for us without him.
"We will see for the future, we are confident in him and, for me, he can look to getting in the selection with Spain, for example."
What are the odds?
Chelsea win - 4/9 Draw - 7/2 Southampton win - 7/1
What's our prediction?
Chelsea 3-0 Southampton. An easy win.