Saints can inflict double blow on Blues

Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard (right) must be at their best against Southampton today, if the Blues are to avoid a fourth straight away defeat in the league.
Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard (right) must be at their best against Southampton today, if the Blues are to avoid a fourth straight away defeat in the league.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Mark Hughes' task over the next week is to start saving Southampton's season by ruining Chelsea's.

Winning at home today, and next Sunday in the FA Cup semi-final, would shatter the lingering top-four hopes of Antonio Conte's men and deny them their last opportunity of silverware this season.

But, while the Premier League clash at St Mary's will serve as a dress rehearsal for Wembley, the Welsh manager knows his most pressing concern would be to close the gap to safety, with the Saints three points adrift of 17th place.

Hughes believes Chelsea's focus has "diminished" in the past few weeks, having lost five of their last eight league games, but said his relegation-threatened side still have a difficult task ahead of them.

"Their focus on the Premier League, I don't know... recent results suggest maybe the focus has diminished," Hughes said.

"Their priorities prior to the season involved Premier League and Champions League titles, clearly those have fallen by the wayside.

"If they have a poor period, more often than not, top teams bounce back so we're not working towards the weekend thinking that Chelsea are going to be under par.

"We have to prepare as if Chelsea are going to be at their best, with their best players available."

At his pre-match press conference yesterday, Conte shared the same concerns as Hughes, stressing the need to "finish the season as strong as possible", starting with the league.

The Blues are hoping to avoid a fourth straight away defeat in the league, which would be their worst run since losing five games on the trot in 2000 under former manager Claudio Ranieri.

He was also tight-lipped over his future, only admitting there was "always speculation around our (coaches') positions" and that the intense scrutiny came with the job.

""Honestly, I'm not curious (about the speculation) because I don't read the papers and honestly I'm not interested in this," the Italian said. "My only worry is to do my job, work with my players in best way possible.

"My job is to work with these players and finish the season as strongly as possible. We want to improve our position.

"It's difficult and we know that but, at the same time, we have to give everything to get points and then to see what happens at the end of the season."

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2018, with the headline 'Saints can inflict double blow on Blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe