A heroic defensive display helped Southampton to three vital points in the Premier League survival race at Stamford Bridge.
Saints made a bright start to an even first half, edging in front just before the break when James Ward-Prowse produced a trademark free-kick to break the deadlock and move to within one of David Beckham’s Premier League record of 18.
Graham Potter rang the changes after the interval, sparking an improved performance from his side, with substitute Raheem Sterling denied by last-ditch blocks on no fewer than four occasions – all from different defenders, as Saints dug deep under the stewardship of interim boss Rubén Sellés.
A gruesome injury to Chelsea captain César Azpilicueta led to 12 tortuous minutes of added time for the 3,000-plus travelling fans to endure, but this was a performance full of exactly the sort of commitment required to carry Saints away from the foot of the table.
There was a poignant moment before kick-off, as everybody inside Stamford Bridge stood to pay tribute to the victims of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, including former Chelsea player Christian Atsu, who has tragically passed away, aged 31.
Sellés, taking charge of Saints for the second time this season, made three changes from Nathan Jones’s last line-up, as Armel Bella-Kotchap, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Stuart Armstrong all returned to replace Mohammed Salisu, James Bree and Carlos Alcaraz.
The Spaniard would have been delighted with Saints’ start, as his team got straight on the front foot, taking the game to Chelsea early on.
Ward-Prowse tested the pace of Benoît Badiashile inside three minutes, inviting Kamaldeen Sulemana to chase a ball into the channel that the Ghanaian subsequently won.
Showing his speed and shrugging aside the defender, Kamaldeen was quickly met by advancing goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who swatted his initial shot before he was bailed out by covering defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who blocked Armstrong’s follow up that was destined for the net vacated by Kepa.
Koulibaly followed up his goal-saving clearance with an ugly tackle on Paul Onuachu. With stoods raised, he caught the striker on the thigh and was shown a yellow card that might have been red had it come later in the game.
Chelsea continued to look uncertain. Ward-Prowse crossed from the left towards the towering figure of Onuachu, who rose well to head the ball back across the rooted Kepa, who was grateful to watch it drop just past his right-hand post.
The Blues’ first piece of attacking intent arrived in the 13th minute, as Noni Madueke, one of five January signings in Potter’s starting line-up, dispossessed Romain Perraud on the halfway line, galloped into the penalty area and fired a low shot across Gavin Bazunu, who repelled the initial strike before Jan Bednarek prodded the loose ball behind for a corner.
Bella-Kotchap then followed Koulibaly into the book for bringing down David Datro Fofana, an offence far from as dangerous as the earlier foul but deemed worthy of the same punishment.
Chelsea were beginning to take control. Azplicueta drilled a shot into the side-netting, but Saints remained energetic, forcing a stray pass out of play from Badiashile that had Sellés applauding manically from the edge of his technical area.
João Félix just could not grow enough to get adequate contact on an Azplicueta cross late in the half, while Fofana’s low shot was easy for Bazunu, as Chelsea struggled to turn possession into clear-cut chances.
Instead it was Saints who packed a punch. When Armstrong dribbled across the face of the Chelsea box and won a free-kick in the last minute of normal time, there was only one man for the job.
Up stepped Ward-Prowse, from prime position just left of centre eight yards outside the penalty area, and the skipper did not disappoint with another trademark set-piece that curled away from Kepa’s dive and nestled in the bottom corner of the net.
Unsurprisingly, given the bluntness of his side’s display, Potter turned to his bench for reinforcements, introducing Sterling and Wesley Fofana for Fofana and Koulibaly respectively.
Sterling’s impact was immediate, as he crossed from the left towards the unmarked Mason Mount, who seemed to mistime his header and allowed a golden chance to elude him.
Then Saints needed Bednarek to throw himself in the way of a Sterling shot to make a vital block, before Sellés made his own set of substitutions – three, in fact, just shy of the hour mark.
The thinking was to inject fresh energy into his attack, as Theo Walcott, Adam Armstrong and Sékou Mara were all summoned to replace Onuachu, Kamaldeen and Armstrong’s namesake.
After Potter then brought on Kai Havertz and another new addition, Mykhailo Mudryk, Havertz set up Sterling for another near certain equaliser, only for Ainsley Maitland-Niles to put his body on the line for the cause and save his side.
If that was living dangerously, it was nothing compared to the attack that followed. Again Havertz was the architect, beating Maitland-Niles down the Saints right, crossing for Sterling whose header beat Bazunu but not the covering Perraud, who somehow cleared off the line before Roméo Lavia blocked Sterling’s follow-up, leaving the England man wondering what on Earth he had to do to score a goal.
Saints were defending for their lives, but respite arrived in the shape of a counter-attack in the 73rd minute.
The substitutes nearly worked for Sellés, as Walcott tore down the wing and crossed low for Armstrong, who was denied by a sprawling save from Kepa.
From the ensuing corner, Mara’s attempted bicycle kick connected not with the ball but the head of Azpilicueta – an almighty whack that left the defender flat on the turf for eight minutes.
That led to 12 added minutes at the end of the game, with Saints camped in their own half for the majority of it, but Bazunu punched clear a Félix free-kick and saved superbly from Conor Gallagher, before Mudryk volleyed Chelsea’s last chance inches wide.