Zola The Closest In Stamford Bridge Stalemate  (Sky Sports)

Chelsea 0 Southampton 0

Chelsea  0-0  Southampton 
Barclaycard Premiership, December 26   


Richard Jolly reports

The width of a post, a superb save and a resolute Southampton side denied Chelsea a return to the top of the Premiership on a bumpy Stamford Bridge pitch.

Gianfranco Zola spurned Chelsea's first and best chance, sidefooting Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's inviting cross on to the inside of the post and out again on a frustrating day for Claudio Ranieri's title challengers.

And in a frantic finale, Antti Niemi made the magnificent save to keep out substitute William Gallas' drive - Hasselbaink again the provider - and the French defender claimed a penalty when his header struck James Beattie.

Gallas then came to Saints' rescue when he twice inadvertently blocked John Terry's goalbound shot before the returning Marcel Desailly blasted over the bar.

The diminutive Italian could not find the goal to take him into double figures this season but he remained the player most likely to unlock Southampton's solid defence; on another day his instinctive and incisive passing and awareness would have produced the goal to enable Chelsea to overhaul Arsenal - albeit briefly - at the summit of the Premiership.

Instead, it was another result which will raise questions Chelsea's title credentials, despite the determination Ranieri's side showed in their late onslaught if the cliche about needing to beat Southampton at home to win the Premiership is again invoked - though Gordon Strachan's high-flying side are very different to the image of struggling Southampton.  

The ubiquitous Zola and Hasselbaink combined to set up Enrique de Lucas for the Spaniard to slice wildly wide before the Italian's perfectly-measured pass gave the midfielder an easier opportunity only for De Lucas to dally and Chris Marsden to make an exceptional last-gasp tackle.

Another exquisite pass from Zola provided Hasselbaink with a chance for a late winner but Michael Svensson forced the Dutchman wide and he failed to find the target with a low shot.

It was not all one-way traffic, however, and Southampton had chances to record a fourth win in their six-match unbeaten run, Beattie missing the best as he blasted over the bar following a knock-down from strike partner Jo Tessem.

And the Premiership's top scorer was denied a controversial second-half strike by the acrobatics of Ed de Goey when the prostrate striker changed the direction of Michael Svensson's prodded shot with his elbow.

Southampton adapted quicker to the pitch more reminiscent of park football than the Premiership game with Beattie and Tessem unable to direct headers from Matthew Oakley corners on target.

And though Saints were playing a more direct game - and thus perhaps better suited to the surface - than Chelsea, they showed they were capable of quality football too. Tessem, replacing the rested Brett Ormerod, played a slide-rule pass Zola would have been proud of to release the sliding Rory Delap, whose shot was straight at Ed de Goey.

With Frank Lampard and Graeme Le Saux both given a festive rest by Ranieri, Chelsea lacked drive in the early stages, though John Terry showed their commitment in a powerful battle with Beattie, the duo requiring treatment after a second-half clash of heads.

Indeed, Saints may regret that, hard as they battled, they hardly tested de Goey, making his first appearance of the season because of Carlo Cudicini's calf-strain, though Oakley, Svensson and Fabrice Fernandes all picked out the Dutchman with shots.

And before Niemi's late heroics, the Finn had little to do with Zola, Hasselbaink and Boudewijn Zenden all missing the target when taking aim from distance.

De Lucas chipped in with  Van Bastenesque volley which sailed over the bar as he took advantage of an unusual off-day from Wayne Bridge, who celebrated his 109th consecutive Premiership game - a record for an outfueld player - with a caution for a tug on Hasselbaink on the stroke of half time.

Chelsea stepped up the pressure in their search for a winner in the second half with Eidur Gudjohnsen becoming the third striker on the pitch and the dominant Michael Svensson called into action as Blues put the Southampton box under siege.

But if Chelsea wanted an indication that the goal would not come, it arrived in the first half when Zola inspired the game's best passing move, involving Zenden and Emmanuel Petit. When Hasselbaink found the Italian ready to shoot, he slipped, scuffed his shot and watched it roll tamely to Niemi.

It was that kind of day for Chelsea.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea) - The most creative player on either side.  

Chelsea: de Goey, Babayaro, Desailly, Terry, Melchiot (Gallas 86), Zenden (Lampard 85), Petit, Morris, De Lucas (Gudjohnsen 80), Zola, Hasselbaink.
Subs Not Used: Pidgeley, Gronkjaer.
Booked: Melchiot.

Southampton: Niemi, Bridge, Michael Svensson, Lundekvam, Telfer, Marsden, Delap, Oakley (Anders Svensson 90), Fernandes, Beattie, Tessem (Davies 85).
Subs Not Used: Jones, Williams, Ormerod.
Booked: Bridge, Fernandes.

Att: 39,428
Ref: P Durkin (Dorset).

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