With the World Cup qualifiers on hiatus again until June, the Premier League returns this Saturday and as all 20 teams gear up for the run-in, for Chelsea fans that means the winding down of the Rafael Benitez era.
The Spaniard has proven to be as popular at Stamford Bridge as a dinner date with Jedward and though Chelsea sit third in the Premier League and are still in the FA Cup and the Europa League, all parties involved – particularly the Blues supporters – will be counting down the days to the end of their interim boss’ tenure.
A 2-0 win against rivals West Ham last time out will still have done little to appease the dissenters, though the sight of Frank Lampard heading home his 200th goal for the club was a cause for celebration, as was Eden Hazard’s excellent second.
The Blues travel to Southampton on Saturday and their latest opponents also enjoyed an excellent win last time out, dispatching Liverpool 3-1 at St Mary’s thanks to goals from Morgan Schneiderlin, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
It was a vital three points for the Saints following a run of three games without victory, including defeats to Newcastle United and QPR, and the result leaves the south-coast side four points above the relegation zone with a significantly better goal difference than their rivals.
The Saints, who have been eased out to 13/2 to suffer the drop with bwin, are priced at 5/2 to claim back-to-back home league victories, with the draw 12/5 and Chelsea slightly better than even money at 21/20.
The formbook would certainly point towards an away victory, as Benitez’s team thrashed Southampton 5-1 in the third round of the FA Cup back in January and have never lost at St Mary’s, winning on four of their five visits since August 2001.
However, the two sides did meet 11 days after their cup clash and despite Southampton trailing 2-0 at half-time to goals from Demba Ba and Eden Hazard, they staged an excellent recovery to force a draw at the Bridge following a towering Lambert header and an excellent half-volley from Jason Puncheon.
It proved to be Nigel Adkins’ last match in charge of the club and this week he took up new residence at Reading to set up a mouth-watering fixture with his old side next weekend.
That is a match his successor, Mauricio Pochettino, will no doubt be looking forward to as well, though “Poch the Giantkiller” will only have eyes for Chelsea on Saturday.
The Argentine manager may have arrived in the Premier League under a cloud, but he has won plenty of admirers so far with his positive, pressing, attacking football that has already seen Southampton claim the scalps of champions Manchester City and Liverpool.
Even Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson labelled Southampton as “the best team to play here this season” following the Red Devils’ narrow 2-1 victory over the Saints at Old Trafford in January.
Another factor for punters to consider is Chelsea’s intensive fixture list, which sees them take on United in their FA Cup quarter-final replay on Monday, before doing battle with Rubin Kazan in the Europa League on Thursday.
Ferguson has already suggested that he will field two different teams for his league and FA Cup matches, and he doesn’t have a midweek European match to further complicate matters, so how Benitez will negotiate three tough games in six days is anyone’s guess.
With that in mind, the draw looks to be the sensible bet for this weekend and new customers backing it with their free £20 bet after registering will pocket winnings of £68 if successful.
As well as Chelsea’s hectic schedule, the rationale behind believing Southampton can claim a draw is that they are an exciting, yet durable outfit.
And while Lambert, Adam Lallana, Gaston Ramirez and Luke Shaw catch the eye, it is the work of Schneiderlin and Jack Cork in the engine room that makes the Saints a difficult side to beat.
Ex-Chelsea midfielder Cork’s return to fitness in November coincided with a turnaround in Southampton’s results following a wretched start, but it is Schneiderlin who leads the way for both tackles and interceptions in England’s top flight this year.
It is his partnership with Cork as much as Southampton’s swashbuckling attacking play that will present Chelsea with a difficult test this weekend and the Frenchman might attract interest in bwin’s goalscorer market after netting three times in Pochettino’s first eight matches in charge. He is 28/1 to notch first (the same to score last) or 19/2 to net any time.
In terms of other goalscorer punts, both Lampard and Juan Mata stand out for Chelsea, while of course, Lambert looks good odds for the home side – and the three are similarly priced.
Lampard is now only two strikes behind Bobby Tambling’s all-time scoring record and he is 7/1 to net first at the weekend or 2/1 to grab a 14th goal in his last 24 games for club and country.
Lambert is at exactly the same prices to net, while Mata is also 2/1 to net any time, but Chelsea’s top scorer is 13/2 to score first and the same to notch last.
It should be an entertaining game at St Mary’s this weekend and the 1-1 draw at 21/4 will attract interest, as will a price of 10/1 on a 2-2 outcome which would give Benitez more tough questions to answer.
However, I will be playing it a bit safer and simply taking the 12/5 on any kind of stalemate, which would be a far better result for Pochettino than his beleaguered opposite number.