Chelsea’s hopes of winning the Premier League title this season were left hanging by a thread after they squandered a 2-0 lead in a 2-2 draw at home to strugglers Southampton on Wednesday.
The result left Chelsea still in third place, but 13 points behind leaders Manchester United, with just 16 league games remaining.
After successive home defeats to Queens Park Rangers and Swansea City, the latter in the League Cup semi-final first leg, Chelsea appeared on course for victory when Demba Ba and Eden Hazard put them ahead before halftime.
However, the visitors rallied after the break through substitute Rickie Lambert’s 10th goal of the season and an outstanding equalizer from Jason Puncheon.
The result saw Southampton continue their improved run of form to move three points clear of the bottom three.
Chelsea left the field to boos from their own fans and this result will have done nothing for the wafer-thin popularity of interim manager Rafael Benitez with large sections of the London club’s supporters.
“We have to be more clinical when we have chances,” the Spaniard told Sky Sports. “We have to manage the game, score the third goal and finish the game, but we did not do it.”
Meanwhile, delighted Southampton manager Nigel Adkins praised his team’s resilience and discipline.
“We came with a game plan,” he said. “Chelsea are a good side, we came to block them, deny them space and counter attack. To go two goals down when we could have cleared both was a blow, but we showed great character in the second half — great credit to my players.”
While Benitez has overseen a steady improvement in Chelsea’s away form — including a 5-1 FA Cup victory at Southampton — the Spaniard’s side have won just two of their last seven home fixtures.
Chelsea dominated possession early on, but they struggled to create the kind of chances that might lift the crowd.
A Ba cross caused confusion in the visitors’ penalty area, ricocheting off Luke Shaw and Maya Yoshida before bouncing away to safety, but otherwise Saints ’keeper Artur Boruc was largely untroubled before conceding in the 25th minute.
Frank Lampard started the move that led to the goal, forcing his way to the by-line with a determined run before laying the ball back to Cesar Azpilicueta.
The rightback crossed toward Oscar, whose deflected header looped up toward Ba, and the Senegal striker finished well with an acrobatic volley for his third goal in three starts.
Southampton offered signs they might equalize when Jay Rodriguez —preferred ahead of leading scorer Lambert — teed up midfielder Steve Davis, who screwed his shot wide.
That miss appeared costly when Hazard claimed Chelsea’s second goal, with a left-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area, after Ramires’ powerful effort had rebounded back off the crossbar.
However, Southampton, inspired by the introduction of Lambert, fought their way back into game shortly after the restart.
The striker replaced Rodriguez in the 55th minute and within three minutes had halved the deficit.
Saints right-back Nathaniel Clyne eased his way past Hazard before crossing for Lambert, who pulled away from Azpilicueta and directed an accurate header beyond Petr Cech and into the top corner of the Chelsea goal.
Chelsea were undone for a second time in the 75th minute when teenage left-back Luke Shaw — a Blues target — surged forward and squared for Puncheon, who teed himself up before volleying home spectacularly from 12m out.