It’s the hope that kills you. Or, more accurately for Southampton this afternoon, the hope that they could defend a much needed lead to ease their relegation fears.
Instead, substitute Olivier Giroud led a Chelsea fightback that saw the blues come from two-nil down to win three-two at St Mary’s this afternoon.
The Frenchman’s brace and Eden Hazards’ close range finish saw Chelsea change the game in an eight minute spell; Southampton were winning by two clear goals with twenty minutes to go.
Saints were ahead through Dusan Tadic’s 21st minute strike, with Jan Bednarek scoring on his Premier League debut following a pinpoint James Ward-Prowse free kick.
It leaves Saints three points from safety following three straight games in which they have conceded three goals.
Mark Hughes is still without in the league after after replacing Mauricio Pellegrino as manager and will wonder what he has to do to stop his team from conceding.
Hughes had his team fired up for his first home game in charge against a Chelsea side who had not won on the road in three months. Aggression was the order of the day, with Shane Long leading the line brilliantly and Saints snapping into tackles all over the pitch.
Alex McCarthy had a busy first half, commanding his area well to collect an early Willian cross and making a good save off the Chelsea forward’s free kick.
Southampton were applying pressure from the first whistle though, with Tadic using his strength to slip Cedric Soares in down the right, with Thibaut Courtois making the save.
The opener arrived 20 minutes in through a brilliant Saints move that saw them counter with a sweeping move from inside their own box.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s superb pass freed Ryan Bertrand down the left, with the full back bursting into the box and cutting the ball back to Tadic for a simple side-footed finish. The Serb had his first goal since boxing day, and looked to be up for the fight.
Chelsea were pinned right back in their half, with the St Mary’s crowd buoyant. Long’s teasing cross was close to being met by Cedric at the back post - Chelsea were hanging on.
The visitors responded for a brief period, with Alvaro Morato heading over following a blatant push on Bertrand that the officials missed. McCarthy was on hand to tip away Willian’s whipped corner half an hour in.
Long was enjoying himself, firing wide of goal from 20 yards after breaking towards Chelsea’s retreating back line. The Irishman then fed Ward-Prowse on the edge of the area, who forced a smart save off Courtois.
Saints aggression nearly got the better of them before the break, with Hojbjerg putting in a bad foul on Andreas Christensen and receiving a yellow off Mike Dean. Dean then failed to punish Marcos Alonso for a blatant foul, despite looking directly at the Spaniard who came over the top of play to stamp down on Long. In this day and age, a blatant red card, and Ward-Prowse made sure the Chelsea boys knew about it with a foul on Willian for which he received a yellow card for. Dean did not have a good afternoon.
Saints emerged form the tunnel in the same frame of mind and Long nearly doubled the lead five minutes from the break. The Irishman raced onto Hojbjerg’s long pass and was brought down by Christensen. Mike Dean gave nothing, with Long springing back to his feet and mishitting a shot which looped towards the top corner, Courtois tipping the ball over the bar.
Hazard started to find more of the ball, forcing a smart save from an acute angle with McCarthy then denying Willian’s effort from the edge of the box despite spilling the ball in the process.
Saints doubled the lead through the unlikeliest of sources an hour in, with Jan Bednarek volleying in a delicious Ward-Prowse free kick from deep. The academy graduate’s long sweeping ball found the defender at the back post and Bednarek hammered it home.
Fans in the stands could not believe it; Saints looked like they would beat a top team for the first time in two years in the league and escape the relegation places. It was not to be.
Antonio Conte responded by changing shape and throwing on Pedro and Giroud, with the Frenchman completely turning the result in Chelsea’s favour.
Tadic and Long nearly linked up well just before the goal, with Courtois collecting an unpunished back pass. Minutes later Chelsea were back in the game.
Saints switched off for a moment following a free kick in the middle of the park which made its way to Alonso. The wing back found space down the left to cross, with Giroud getting between Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt to nod home from close range.
Nerves began to jangle, with the misplaced passes flying straight out of play for the first time in the game. Saints were under immense pressure, with Hazard the tormentor from a more central position.
It was down the left again that the goal emerged, with Willian beating the hapless Cedric and cutting the ball back to Hazard just a few yards from goal. The Belgian could not miss, calmly levelling the scores 74 minutes in.
The third felt almost inevitable and arrived barely three minutes later. Saints failed to clear the ball with Giroud adjusting his body well and rifling in the knockdown. Saints were crestfallen and could not respond.
Charlie Austin and Josh Sims made late cameos, and nearly rescued Saints as the clock ticked into extra time. Austin’s dummy let Sims in down the left, with the youngster unable to turn the ball home with the angle against him.
Hojbjerg’s weak header failed to trouble Courtois following Bertrand’s late corner, but Chelsea saw out the game with relative ease.
A second straight three-two loss against a top team in a row leaves Saints staring down the barrel of relegation. They play Chelsea again in an FA Cup semi-final at the weekend following a trip to Claude Puel’s Leicester on Thursday. Fail to pick up three points there and it is hard to see Saints surviving.
As in the Arsenal defeat, Southampton showed plenty of fight and creativity but their defending and game management were shambolic. If they can perform like that against the likes of Leicester, Swansea and Everton, they might still have a chance of staying up.
Saints: McCarthy; Cedric, Yoshida, Hoedt, Bednarek (Gabbiadini 91), Bertrand (c); Romeu, Hojbjerg; Ward-Prowse (Austin 79), Tadic (Sims 82); Long.
Subs: Forster, McQueen, Lemina, Boufal, Sims, Austin, Gabbiadini.
Chelsea: Courtois; Alonso, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill (c), Zappacosta (Pedro 61); Kante, Fabregas; Willian, Hazard (Moses 86); Morata (Giroud 61).
Subs: Caballero, Moses, Emerson, Bakayoko, Barkley, Pedro, Giroud.