LONDON, March 15- Diego Costa ended his seven-game drought but the Chelsea striker’s 18th Premier League goal of the season was not enough to secure victory as the leaders were held to a 1-1 draw by Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Jose Mourinho’s side were desperate to bounce back from their midweek Champions League exit against Paris Saint Germain and take advantage of Manchester City’s surprise defeat against Burnley on Saturday.
But Dusan Tadic’s 19th penalty cancelled out Costa’s 11th minute opener and denied the Blues the chance to establish an even more commanding lead over the chasing pack.
While a point extended Chelsea’s lead at the head of the table to six points, having played a game less than second-placed City, it was a disappointing end to a frustrating week for Mourinho and company.
The draw also frustrated Southampton who were unable to make bigger inroads in their efforts to force their way back into contention for a top four finish.
Mourinho had responded to the Champions League exit by rounding on his team’s critics – Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool players turned TV pundits, came in for particular attention for their comments about the Chelsea players behaviour towards the referee – and bullishly insisting his team would make up for that set-back by winning the title.
The Chelsea manager’s decision to retain 10 of the starting line-up that failed to beat PSG, Willian came in for Ramires, reinforced the view that Mourinho had faith in his players’ resilience.
And the opening moments of the game suggested the Portuguese’s confidence was not misplaced with his side capping a bright start with a much-needed goal from Costa.
The move that led to Chelsea taking the lead offered a reminder of the qualities they have shown for much of the season with Eden Hazard exchanging passes with Costa outside the Southampton area before working the ball out to Branislav Ivanovic on the right.
Costa, meanwhile, spotted a gap in the visitors’ defences and darted into the area where he met Ivanovic’s well-flighted cross with a powerful header from just six yards out.
– Wounded morale –
The pain of Wednesday evening had been eased, but Southampton responded immediately, confirming they had no intention of simply playing a supporting role as Mourinho’s team repaired their wounded morale.
Ronald Koeman’s side had enjoyed a 12-day break since the victory over Crystal Palace that had revived their top-four challenge.
Presented with the opportunity to take his players for a mid-season break, Koeman broke with tradition, opting to head for the snow of Switzerland instead of the more traditional warm weather training trip.
The move appeared to have had the desired effect with Southampton looking sharp and refreshed as they quickly recovered and were back on level terms thanks to a contentious penalty decision.
Referee Mike Dean decided the excellent Sadio Mane was brought down after the Southampton forward found himself sandwiched between Nemanja Matic and Ivanovic.
The Chelsea players were clearly unhappy at the decision but, having being accused of surrounding referee Bjorn Kuipers and contributing to the Dutchman’s decision to dismiss Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Wednesday, the reaction this time was muted.
There was another potential flashpoint shortly afterwards when Ivanovic’s appeals for a penalty were dismissed, but the home side’s main concern was how to stifle Koeman’s side.
Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama were dominating the midfield while Tadic and Mane repeatedly threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
By contrast, Chelsea appeared ponderous and were fortunate to reach half-time on level terms.
The second half brought an improvement from Mourinho’s side with Costa becoming more prominent, particularly when the forward diverted Willian’s shot against the upright.
The momentum of the game continued to favour Chelsea and it took two excellent saves from Saints keeper Fraser Forster to keep out a Hazard header and an Oscar shot before John Terry blazed wide in a frantic finale.