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Chelsea held at 10-man Saints,but Man City fail to close gap

As we reach the halfway stage of the Premier League season, the title race has heated up this mid-winter after leaders Chelsea dropped points at Southampton.

Blues boss Jose Mourinho needed a trademark Eden Hazard cutting inside goal to rescue his side at St Mary’s, with Ronald Koeman sending out the hosts to give a divine defensive display.

The Saints boss made a clever tactical switch for the visit of champions-elect Chelsea, starting Senegal international Sadio Mane in a central supporting role rather than down the left.

It paid off just after a quarter of an hour when Southampton crafted a fine team goal. Graziano Pelle’s fine hold-up play found Dusan Tadic, who lofted a through-ball onto Mane. His run in-behind the Blues backline left visiting skipper John Terry for dead, and a cool chip over Thibaut Courtois followed.

Clear cut chances like this were at a premium in the first half, but just before the break Hazard struck back for Chelsea. Cesc Fabregas found the Belgium sensation, who came infield to find space and fired low beyond Fraser Forster into the bottom corner.

What followed in the second half was a one-sided Blues barrage, but a masterclass in defending from their hosts kept them out. With Ryan Bertrand ineligible against his parent club and Nathaniel Clyne missing, that meant young Matt Targett at left back and a makeshift option on the other flank of defence for Southampton.

Fabregas went down under the Saints teenager’s challenge in the box, but referee Anthony Taylor booked the Spaniard for simulation. Replays showed Targett slipped and made clear contact, so Blues supporters may feel aggrieved over the lack of a penalty award.

Hazard fired wide on the hour after taking a scoped Fabregas ball over the top on his chest and turning to strike at goal, but that was only other opening of note thanks to a home defence marshalled superbly by returning Southampton skipper Jose Fonte.

Referee Taylor still had time thereafter to book Morgan Schneiderlin twice for poor tackles, including a cynical hack on Fabregas late on to prevent a Chelsea counter that resulted in a red card.

Throwing both Didier Drogba and Loic Remy on failed to bring about a winner for Mourinho’s men, so a share of the spoils was the result. This 1-1 draw ensured Koeman and the Saints will head into 2015 in the top four, which remains a realistic prospect for them should they maintain performances of this magnitude.

Dutch winger Eljero Elia is coming in to cover mostly for Mane, who barring injury will almost certainly go to the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal in Equatorial Guinea.

Koeman may need to look at an understudy right back to cover for Clyne, and tying up a permanent deal for Bertrand in January, who once bought will always be available. The Saints slump is well and truly over, though, but this draw has not proved costly to Chelsea’s title ambitions.

Reigning champions Manchester City were held by lowly Lancashire outfit Burnley in what was down as a home banker for Manuel Pellegrini. Sean Dyche’s Clarets upsetting the apple-cart somewhat leaves Mourinho and the Blues still with a three-point advantage.