Chelsea exhibited almost the perfect away performance in their 3-0 victory over Southampton at St Mary's Stadium on Wednesday.
It was the ideal way to begin 2014, completing the double over a side that has caused more than a few surprises this season. Saints' star might have waned slightly in recent weeks, but they still held free-scoring Manchester City to a 1-1 draw last month. The margin of Chelsea's win, therefore, underscores just how good of a display this was.
- Report: Southampton 0-3 Chelsea
From the first whistle, the visitors were on the front foot, with Fernando Torres a constant menace to the Southampton defence. An excellent turn of foot left the centre-backs trailing in his wake on several occasions, and the only blemish from the Spaniard in an otherwise superb opening 45 minutes was his finishing in front of goal. His approach play was pacey and incisive, and if he could locate his shooting boots on a more regular basis, he would be devastating on this form.
Even so, Torres got his rewards on the hour mark when he nodded Chelsea into the lead after reacting quickest to the ball rebounding off the post. It was the least he deserved for a spirited display, especially after having suffered the disappointment of starting Chelsea's 2-1 win Sunday against former club Liverpool on the substitutes' bench.
But as good as Chelsea's No. 9 was, even he was put into the shade by Oscar. The little Brazilian was in stunning form from the moment he was introduced after 53 minutes, though his first notable contribution was rather less complimentary. Quite what possessed him to search for a penalty when he had the goal at his mercy, having rounded Southampton goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, is anyone's guess. He was rightly booked, and he would have had a few questions to answer had he not then put in a masterful display. Oscar was involved in each of the goals. It was his deflected cross that cannoned into Torres' path for the opener, and it was his close control, body swerve and neat layoff that teed up Willian for his rocket-fuelled right-foot finish. He added the gloss with a goal for himself after latching onto Eden Hazard's clipped through ball to cap a scintillating individual performance.
While Oscar was the catalyst who turned promising opportunities into goals, it was Jose Mourinho's decision-making that set the stage in the first place. Having seen his team largely dominate the first half without breaking the deadlock, he waited just eight minutes into the second period before shuffling the pack with a double substitution, replacing Juan Mata and Andre Schurrle with Oscar and Willian. Mata's understandably perplexed reaction at being brought off hinted at discontent, but the changes made all the difference and fully justified the manager’s actions. Both the substitutes scored, and just as importantly, they increased the tempo considerably and placed Southampton under more concerted pressure. Their creaking defence finally broke and the floodgates all but opened for Chelsea. It would be intriguing to know what Mata was thinking as the offense flowed courtesy of the replacements. As disappointed as he must have been, he cannot have failed to be impressed by the verve of his teammates in the last half-hour of the game.
Another encouraging aspect of the game was the clean sheet. The back four were solid and restricted a dynamic and creative Southampton side to few real chances, with tremendous commitment to blocking any goal-bound efforts negating the need for goalkeeper Petr Cech to get his hands dirty. The Saints have been shut out only once previously this season at St Mary's, thus putting Chelsea's defensive display into perspective.
With Manchester City and Arsenal both winning, three points were vital to keep the pressure on their fellow title rivals. To do it with a handsome win over the surprise package of the season was all the more impressive and should hopefully see the thoroughly unwarranted boring tag that has been recently laid on the Blues fully discarded. Indeed, with the team nonchalantly knocking the ball around as they sat on a three-goal lead in the closing stages, the travelling supporters broke into an ironic chant of "boring, boring Chelsea".
But it doesn't matter whether pundits or rival fans change their view. If Chelsea can continue to play like that for the rest of the season, then a genuine title challenge is a real possibility. 2014 could not have started any better.
Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell