FA Cup holders Chelsea begin their defence with a trip to the South Coast to face fellow Premier League side Southampton on Saturday (3pm GMT).
The Saints have just one FA Cup trophy to their name in comparison to Chelsea’s seven but have progressed beyond the third round of the cup in seven of the last eight seasons despite being a lower division side in all but one of those campaigns.
After a difficult start to life back in the Premier League, in which they lost eight of their first 10 matches, Southampton have begun to look more at ease in the top flight, losing just two of the next 10.
The primary improvement has been in their defending. Whereas they conceded 28 goals in their first ten matches of the season, the Saints have conceded just 10 times in the subsequent 10 – a significant betterment.
Consistency of selection has played a big role in this improvement, with Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte, Maya Yoshida and Luke Shaw making up the back four in eight of the most recent 10 matches. Fonte and Yoshida, in particular, have struck up an excellent partnership at the heart of the defence.
Nigel Adkins’ side are currently clear of the relegation zone on goal difference alone, but do have a game in hand over all those around them, albeit one away to Chelsea from which it will be very difficult to pick up points.
Southampton felt hard done by on New Year’s Day when a second half Gaston Ramirez strike was harshly ruled out during a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal. Ramirez had earlier opened the scoring before an unfortunate own goal from Guly Do Prado levelled the scores in a match in which three points could easily have gone the way of the Saints.
It was, nevertheless, a very promising performance from Adkins’ men and one that will give their manager hope that relegation can be avoided with similar displays throughout the second half of the season.
Chelsea, too, may feel that they were on the wrong side of the result in their most recent Premier League outing, losing 1-0 at home to Queen’s Park Rangers on Wednesday in a fiercely contested West London derby.
Chelsea dominated most metrics by which one could usually predict the victor. A combination of wayward finishing and an excellent performance from QPR’s Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar prevented them from getting the goals and points their performance perhaps warranted.
The loss may well have broken the uneasy truce that had been struck between Rafael Benitez and the Chelsea supporters. The vitriol that met his appointment faded as his side began to pick up good results, but defeat to their heavily unfancied local rivals is likely to bring the supporters’ discontent into focus once more.
With the January transfer window now open, Benitez will at least get the chance to mould the squad more in his image in the coming weeks. Demba Ba looks likely to arrive from Newcastle to provide some much needed competition for Fernando Torres up front, while a defensive midfielder may also be on the Spaniard’s shopping list.
The defeat to QPR brought Chelsea crashing back down to earth after four consecutive league victories had briefly raised hopes of an unlikely title challenge. Such hopes can now, surely, be put to rest, with 14 points separating the Blues from league leaders Manchester United.
Chelsea’s best chance of silverware will, then, come in cup competitions. They have the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Swansea coming up next Wednesday and a Europa League campaign to look forward to. But first comes the defence of the FA Cup they won with victory over Liverpool in last season’s final.
Benitez rested Ashley Cole, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata from the start on Wednesday and all three could be on line for a start on Saturday. Jon Obi Mikel may also be in contention if his recovery from a knee injury progresses as expected.
Southampton will definitely be without captain Adam Lallana but are hopeful that Clyne will have sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to make the squad.
Southampton v Chelsea Betting Tips
Southampton have drawn each of their last three matches and we would not be at all surprised to see a similar result on Saturday. Chelsea are, on paper, the better side, but with the St Mary’s crowd behind them the Saints are capable of taking this tie to a replay.