Despite what Manchester City might appear to believe, not everyone is under the impression that the title is Chelsea's by default, there to be gifted without a fight. In a non-stop game at Stamford Bridge, the leaders were obliged to battle for a point by a Southampton team who refused to yield. Six points clear at the top Chelsea may be, but they have yet to work as hard as this all season.
Yet for a moment, as the game got underway, it had looked business as usual after the traumas of their Champions League exit. Jose Mourinho was able to field his strongest team and everything appeared to be falling back into normal order. After ten minutes of neat, sharp interchange and passing, Eden Hazard galloped into the Southampton area, checked, turned and passed out to Branislav Ivanovic. The Serb's perfectly weighted cross was steered expertly past Fraser Forster by the forehead of Diego Costa. Putting an end to a barren run of seven games, Costa's beautifully worked goal was precisely the kind of opening salvo Mourinho had demanded.
"We are top of the league," chanted the home supporters, confident they were seeing another step on the route to domestic domination.
But this was not to account for their visitors. With Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama biting into every tackle, and space suddenly contracting, Chelsea found themselves with no room to move. More to the point, Sadio Mane was having the game of his season. Quick, purposeful, direct, he was spreading alarm with every advance. Just a moment after Costa's goal, he found himself with the goal gaping. Tibault Courtois made a superb save from his strike, the ball spinning out to Dusan Tadic who looped a shot just over.
On 18 minutes, Mane tore once more into the Chelsea box, and was brought down by Nemanja Matic. Mourinho insisted afterwards it was a legitimate challenge, but the referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot and, much to Courtois's frustrations, Tadic underhit penalty went straight down the middle, just evading the keeper's studs.
By now, Mane was creating havoc. His pace on the counter attack would not look out of place in a Mourinho line up. First he fired a beautiful ball to Shane Long. Then his neat lay off played in Tadic, whose low shot was smartly saved by Courtois. Another one two set up a cross for Ryan Bertrand, which sent Long jinking in. A scrambled clearance caused a wave of unease in the stands.
As Southampton became increasingly dominant, the home crowd reminded the visitors of their place in the scheme of things.
"Champions of Europe, you'll never sing that," they chanted.
"Johnstone's Paint trophy, you'll never win that," came the response. Even in terrace banter, Chelsea could not gain the upper hand.
And Southampton's disdain didn't relent in the second half. Toby Alderweireld had a free-kick athletically turned over by Courtois.
But Chelsea are not top by chance. Mourinho reorganised by bringing Ramires on in place of the increasingly struggling Matic. The Brazilian's arrival seemed to add coherence to the home side.
Led by the irrepressible Costa, Chelsea began to match Southampton's speed. As Costa powered forward the crowd's excitement rose. Their team was creating chances again. The noise was deafening as Willian hit a post, with Costa an inch from connecting with the rebound.
But still Southampton were not to be cowed. As the action pinged back and forth, Tadic found himself in the area, evading every challenge. But he could not take advantage.
This was high quality tit-for-tat, Hazard, Fabregas and Oscar meeting their match in Mane, Wanyama and Schneiderlin. Costa obliged Forster to make an impulsive save as he thumped in a header from Willian's cross. Then Oscar was set free by a brilliant Hazard pass, Forster once more deflected the resulting shot.
Mourinho tried to force the issue by bringing on Loic Remy and Juan Cuadrado for the last ten minutes. And Chelsea kept on trying, Cesar Azpilicueta forcing another brilliant save from Forster as the 90 minutes ended. From the resulting corner, a frantic scramble in the box, with Ivanovic inadvertently blocking John Terry' goalbound shot, had Mourinho throwing his hands up in despair.
But he will have recognised that, as stalemates go, this one was one to relish. Not least because, whatever their travails, Chelsea's lead is now more extensive than ever.