Chelsea’s needs to find a centre-forward during the January transfer window have intensified as they must make do without Olivier Giroud for the immediate future, starting with Wednesday’s match against Southampton at Stamford Bridge.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Blues (13-4-3), who are provisionally two points clear of Arsenal for the fourth and final Champions League spot, have had only two true centre-forwards on their roster this season – Giroud and Alvaro Morata. While neither has filled up the back of the net – they have combined for six league goals and 11 in all competitions – coach Maurizio Sarri has been able to get by at the position by usually playing the more in-form of the two or by using Eden Hazard as a false No. 9 in his 4-3-3 set-up.
One of those options, however, has been removed in the short-term after Giroud limped off in the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace with an ankle injury after having a goal chalked off for offsides, and his timetable for a return is unknown. The World Cup-winning France international may not have the goal haul desired of a centre-forward, but his nous and industry in the box – often knocking down long balls for Hazard and the other Chelsea wingers to run onto – is keenly valued by Sarri.
“In the last two days we were a bit unlucky. Yesterday in 10 minutes we had three injuries: (Cesc) Fabregas, (Ruben) Loftus-Cheek and (Danny) Drinkwater,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “Now today Giroud, and we were already without Pedro and (Callum) Hudson-Odoi, so now we are in trouble because in January we have to play every three days.”
That puts the onus on the 26-year-old Morata, who has not scored since Nov. 4 in any competition, to take some of the scoring burden off Hazard, who has a team-best 12 goals overall. The Belgium international had factored in all of Chelsea’s previous five goals in the prior four matches before N’Golo Kante took a weighted pass from David Luiz and scored the match-winner on 51 minutes Sunday.
Chelsea have been linked to AC Milan forward Gonzalo Higuain and Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson as possible moves in the impending transfer window, but there is also the possibility the Blues could recall Michy Batshuayi from Spanish side Valencia or Tammy Abraham from Championship club Aston Villa from their respective loans.
Southampton (3-6-11) continue to scrap in the relegation mix and are 2-0-3 since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over following the sacking of Mark Hughes. The Saints were outclassed 3-1 at home by reigning champions Manchester City on Sunday, though there continue to be glimmers of promise that could help them avoid the drop.
One such moment came in the 37th minute when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, playing the high press Hasenhuttl wants to use after he can get more practice time in with the club, was able to dispossess a City player and beat Ederson for a short-lived equaliser. Hojbjerg, though, was not around at the end of the match, getting a straight red on 86 minutes for scything Fernandinho with a two-footed challenge and will miss the next three contests.
Hasenhuttl has not been afraid to give everyone a chance to earn minutes as 18-year-old Kayne Ramsay was the latest to make his first-team debut at right back. Hughes had only turned to fellow youngsters Yan Valery and Michael Obafemil shortly before being shown the door, but both – along with Ramsay – are being given every opportunity to win minutes as Southampton need all hands on deck to avoid the drop.
“It was one goal to have a view on all the guys who have practiced under my management and for the young players to have a good experience against a fantastic team,” Hasenhuttl explained to the club’s official website. “That’s what we tried to do and we are always demanding to give these players a chance. I think it was a very important game for Kayne and I think he did a good job.
“It’s our future and we have to work on that. For me, it was an interesting pressure because now the transfer period comes and I have to know which players I can count on.”
Hojbjerg’s absence means Mario Lemina will again be drafted into the midfield. After going to a four-man back against City and giving defenders Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestegaard off Sunday, Hasenhuttl could opt for the three-man defence he has primarily used since his arrival at St Mary’s.
Chelsea have won seven on the bounce in all competitions between the clubs after a 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s on Oct. 7. It was Ross Barkley’s coming out party for the Blues as he set up Hazard’s goal on the half-hour before scoring one on 57 minutes. Morata added gloss to the scoreline with a tally that finished a 31-pass movement.
Southampton are 3-5-11 at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League era, with the most recent win coming in 2015. Last season’s 1-0 Chelsea victory was the first time in the last seven matches in London there was a clean sheet.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are overwhelming 1/4 favourites to pick up another three points, while Southampton are 9/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/1.
Given Southampton’s frailities at the back against better squads, there are 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals scored in this match compared to 6/4 odds on them finishing under that threshold. The odds of Chelsea posting a clean sheet make the “No” option on both teams scoring a slight favourite at 3/4 compared to even money for “Yes.”
With Giroud expected to be unavailable, Hazard is a strong choice for first-goal scoring honours at 11/4, followed by Alvaro Morata (4/1) and the suddenly in-demand Hudson-Odoi at 9/2. Willian is a 5/1 pick to score first, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another step back at 6/1. Ings is Southampton’s top option at 10/1 while Austin is a 14/1 pick to mak it 0-1.
Hazard’s overall form makes him a 4/6 selection to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Morata even money to put one past McCarthy. Chelsea’s wingers — Hudson-Odoi, Willian and Loftus-Cheek — are all better than 2/1 odds, ranging from Hudson-Odoi at 6/5 to Loftus-Cheek at 8/5 with Willian in between (13/10). Ings is an 11/4 pick to score for the Saints, with both Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini both 4/1 options.
If ever a match called for graft and grind for Chelsea, this is the one as they limp into the end of the holiday fixture list. The Blues have a chance to emerge with three wins on the bounce before likely overturning most of this starting XI for their FA Cup match versus Nottingham Forest.
At the moment, though, means another leaning on a moment of magic from Hazard to secure three points. The Belgium international has seemingly been a part of every key goal — save Sunday — and with the walking wounded seemingly growing with each passing day, Hazard might be the only in-form goal-scorer Sarri has at the moment.
Which, of course, brings us to Morata. The lack of available bodies has forced Sarri’s hand to the point he must start the Spaniard up front. With only 14 minutes under his belt after a four-game absence due to injury, Morata might only be effective for an hour in this match, but he may need to play all 90 minutes out of necessity. There are limitations throughout Chelsea’s roster due to injury — it does not seem out of the question Ross Barkley could wind up in an advanced wing role or that Victor Moses gets a rare start, transfer rumours not withstanding for the one-time Nigeria international.
For Southampton, this is a chance to be obstinate, play behind the ball and try to hit Chelsea on the counter in the bid to take at least one point from this match. The high-pressing style Hasenhuttl wants to use could be in play here since Jorginho is not the swiftest, and playing a triangle attacking style with the playmaker in the hole under the two forwards has proven effective at times versus the Pensioners.
The issue for Southampton is how much of the ball will they see in the attacking third. If the Saints sit back, the answer will be not much since it would turn into the kind of match where Jorginho will be spraying passes and Hazard will look to dart into pockets of space against the Saints’ back three. If Southampton are adventurous and press, it is possible Hazard pick them apart as well, but if they can dispossess Chelsea’s midfielders, there could be goal-scoring opportunities as well.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Southampton 0.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:
Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)