José Mourinho had not counted on Southampton being one of the six Premier League title contenders when sizing up the division on his return to English football but, in coming from behind to overwhelm Mauricio Pochettino's impressive side, Chelsea issued their latest statement of grand intent.
Transforming this occasion from half-time grumbles to full-time celebrations seemed psychologically significant. It was also impressive. The visitors had led inside 15 seconds and have forged a reputation for being defensively strong and menacing on the counterattack. The scenario appeared tailor-made for them to thrive. Mustering a turn-around was never guaranteed so, by ending up so comfortable, Chelsea laid down a marker.
Mourinho claimed to have been reassured by his side's "balance" and calmness even in a first half when they only occasionally threatened to equalise, though it was their dominance after the interval that really offered promise. Juan Mata, restored to the starting line-up, was their creative hub, forever cutting inside his full-back to deliver the vicious centres which have illuminated Chelsea's approach in recent seasons. This team's challenge looks more persuasive when the Spaniard is reintegrated.
Demba Ba, muscular and direct, unsettled the previously serene José Fonte and Dejan Lovren and even registered a first league goal of the season in stoppage time. "They like to play the ball out from the back but switching to 4-4-2 and playing with two strikers meant they had to build long," Mourinho said. "That allowed us to play more in their half and create chances." Chelsea won free-kicks and corners at will against uncharacteristically flustered opponents. Southampton, a side so keen to press high upfield, had been thrust back into their shells and their defence eventually cracked.
A pair of goals from set pieces around the hour established Chelsea's dominance. First Mata's corner was nodded down by Branislav Ivanovic for Ba to prod against the post from close range and Gary Cahill reacted superbly to twist his body and nod into the gaping net. Artur Boruc, outstanding in denying Fernando Torres's header before the break, damaged his hand as he wrapped himself round a post. He eventually wandered from the field and off to hospital for an x-ray that revealed it was broken. The keeper will be out for six weeks. His replacement, the former Gillingham youngster Paulo Gazzaniga, had not played since a defeat at Anfield exactly a year ago and, as Michael Essien had already proved by then, this was no occasion to restore a reputation.
His first involvement was to retrieve the ball from the net after Southampton failed to clear another Mata corner. His follow-up cross was met emphatically by John Terry, easing himself away from Jay Rodriguez, and the captain's header was a fine way to celebrate his 400th Premier League appearance. Chelsea might have added more before Ba's slide and conversion from Ramires' pass added gloss.
"The win was a sign of a team that's progressing step by step and understanding my ideas and mentality," Mourinho said. "Some of the players are understanding that Chelsea must not be completely out of the title race in December, as has happened in some recent years. The boys in the team have to cope with the responsibility of being there, near the top, but this result was a sign of maturity. We kept balance and calm, even after their goal felt like a knife in our back."
It had been the speed at which Southampton secured that lead that had left the hosts momentarily reeling. Pochettino's side had made three passes from the kick-off before Essien, his radar scrambled, intercepted and poked a tentative back-pass over a stunned Cahill to bisect his own centre-halves immaculately. Rodriguez, demonstrating the cool and poise Essien lacked, darted through and on to the loose pass to convert simply beyond Petr Cech with the home defence already beginning their inquest in the goalmouth.
Essien was understandably crestfallen. This had been a first Premier League start since May 2012, and the glorious send-off before Roberto Di Matteo's team travelled to Munich for the Champions League final, and his rustiness was understandable, given he had begun only two League Cup ties since returning to the club from a loan spell under Mourinho at Real Madrid. His afternoon hardly improved thereafter, with a caution for a dive and his withdrawal at the interval, when he was replaced by Ba. "Everybody makes mistakes," said Mourinho.
Southampton need not be too deflated by a second successive defeat, coming after that at the leaders, Arsenal. Boruc's departure rather unsettled their approach and the momentum had switched the moment the equaliser was scored, but there were still passages of authoritative play that justified their lofty position. The visit of Aston Villa to St Mary's on Wednesday will offer a chance to make immediate amends. "We're the youngest team in the Premier League, so we're always learning," Pochettino said. This was an education by the end. Chelsea will hope it is a clearer sign of things to come.
Man of the match Juan Mata (Chelsea)