For players on the fringes of a place in the starting eleven, the early rounds of cup competitions have long provided a stage for which to prove their worth to their respective managers by letting their feet do the talking. However, for those who find themselves in squads stacked with an abundance of high-quality performers like Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea side, these opportunities can become few and far between.
Last night’s Round of 16 Carabao Cup tie at Stamford Bridge provided six Chelsea players with a golden opportunity which many will feel came and went without much consequence. Tuchel brought in Kepa Arrizabalaga, Malang Sarr, Saúl Ñíguez, Marcos Alonso, Hakim Ziyech and Ross Barkley to face Southampton, who also fielded a changed side from the one that played out a stalemate with Burnley in their last Premier League game.
Arrizabalaga, who has only made one Premier League appearance so far this season, had a mixed night between the sticks as his penalty heroics cancelled out an earlier error he made in the lead up to Southampton’s equaliser as he failed to deal with Kyle Walker-Peters low driven shot which presented Che Adams with a tap-in from two yards out.
The Chelsea number one then went on to keep out substitute Theo Walcott’s penalty in the shootout which had followed some good work in second half stoppage time to deny the visitors a late winner as Lyanco had his header tipped over the bar from one of four corners in a late barrage by the away side.
Whilst the 27 year-old shot stopper had a big role to play in his side’s progression to the next round, his inconsistency is something which will worry Tuchel, with the quality of teams in the Premier League looking as good as ever, minimising mistakes in games is an integral factor in being able to stay on the right side of the thin line between winning and losing in football. Edouard Mendy’s place in the side is not under threat for the time being.
Hakim Ziyech was handed his first start in Chelsea colours since his side’s one- nil defeat in Turin against Juventus on the 29th of September. The Moroccan international provided the assist for the opening goal of the game as his corner was well met by Kai Havertz who glanced his header past Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal to score his third goal of the season which ensured the home side went in at half time ahead in the tie. Up until that point however the 27 year-old midfielder had enjoyed a relatively quiet night as he struggled to impose himself on the game and create clear-cut chances for his teammates, something which has become somewhat of a theme with his performances in a Chelsea shirt since joining from Ajax for 40 million euros in the summer of 2020.
His night came to a conclusion with just under 25 minutes still to play in the game as he was substituted for Mason Mount who also struggled to make an impression which culminated in the Englishman having his penalty saved by Forster in the shootout.
Ross Barkley suffered the same fate as his midfield counterpart as he was also taken off in the 67th minute as Tuchel was left unsatisfied by his side’s lacklustre performance which was met by a spirited display by Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men who may feel frustrated that they didn’t punish the European Champions.
Barkley was given his first start of the season in this game but like Ziyech, he failed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and impose himself on the occasion. It may be considered harsh to say you would be forgiven for forgetting he had set foot on the hallowed Stamford Bridge turf in the first place, but the 27 year-old midfielder will no doubt need to make a much stronger case in future appearances if he is to have any chance of deposing players like Jorginho and Mateo kovacic who currently occupy his favoured central midfield position.
Saúl Ñíguez, who was maybe the most impressive of the players who didn’t start in Chelsea’s 7-0 victory over Norwich at the weekend, had a couple of good chances to grab his first goal for the Blues since joining on loan from Athletico Madrid on deadline day. The 26 year-old played a full 90 minutes under the lights at Stamford Bridge and did manage to create some much needed moments of quality for his teammates whilst also looking to provide a high tempo to Chelsea’s passing in the middle of the park. The Spaniard has so far struggled to get his opportunities under Tuchel but with the club wanting to be successful fighting on all fronts this season, squad depth will be key and a player with the quality of Saul won’t be out of the team for long.
Whilst it will be important for the Chelsea boss to evaluate the performances of those who looked to make their case for a regular starting place, the nature of knock-out football remains, the result is all that matters. Whilst the visitors will be pleased with their performance which saw a team containing just three players that started against Burnley at the weekend dominate the European champions for large periods, its Tuchel’s men who will move on to the next round with a continued chance at yet more silverware.
Before their next Carabao Cup fixture, Chelsea take on Newcastle United in the Premier League with a chance to extend their lead at the top whilst Southampton, who currently occupy 16th place, take on Watford at Vicarage Road before taking on Aston Villa in their last domestic fixture before the international break.