This fixture, between the team that had conceded 8 goals in a single match this season, and a team that had scored 5 in their last game, ended rather infuriatingly in stalemate. Chelsea were expected to control the game, and Sunderland to defend for their lives. This was largely how it played out and, though their unbeaten record is still intact, Chelsea failed to score in a Premier League match for the first time, and dropped points against a bottom-half team, also for the first time this season.
The opening 20 minutes were dominated, predictably, by Chelsea, but Sunderland defended the relentless waves of blue well, restricting their opponents to few genuinely threatening moments. Willian hitting the post was the only memorable event of the opening section. This being said, it was always going to be tough for Mourinho’s men, as it is any team that face this sort of ultra-deep-lying opposition. Shepherding the ball from flank to flank 15 metres outside the box is all well and good, as is teeing up John Terry for speculative long shots, but eventually a ball of incision and purpose must be played. Costa did well to offer his team a strong, back-to-goal presence, and capably held the ball up when speared passes were sent into him, but each time the swarm of red and white inevitably, and immediately, came.
Eden Hazard, that tree-trunk legged, squat and swervy dynamo, was lingering with menace through out the opening, collecting the ball out wide and tip toeing inwards. Nemanja Matic was also, as he always does, protecting against any counter-attacks supremely well, muscling Sunderland hopefuls off the ball and being perfectly provident in his passing. It makes you wonder why Chelsea let him go a few seasons ago, because he really is the sturdy base upon which this sparkling attack can stand.
Sunderland assistant coach Mauricio Tarrico was sent to the stands, for some reason or another, and the growing tautness that comes when under sustained duress was visible in the Stadium of Light. On the half hour, Ivanovic had a quality chance, and only an excellent save off the thigh of Pantilimon stopped the opening goal. The home fans were ironically cheering when Lee Mason awarded their team a free kick, and the atmosphere was tense as Seb Larsson lined up to take it. Though the free kick was cleared, the ball broke to Sunderland and, from a deflected cross, full back Santiago Vergini hit the bar. A clammy gasp and dishevelled sigh erupted as the ball pinged off the woodwork, and Gus Poyet spun wildly away in exasperation. Chances such as those will be rare, he would have lamented.
Poyet’s team structure was an interesting one, with Connor Wickham lining up on the left side of a forward three, with Steven Fletcher in the middle and Adam Johnson on the right. Presumably, Wickham was to slide in as a second centre forward when Johnson embarked down the right, though the former Man City winger was largely uninvolved in the action in the first half. In fact, a lot of Sunderland’s play was funnelled down the left, and in the scarce instances that they could fashion a coherent attack, the Black Cats were strangely shy of exploiting the right hand side. It no doubt hand much to do with the fact that Vergini, a centre half by trade and, as such, unaccustomed to bombing forward, was playing at right full back. No matter, because Wickham was excelling on the left, and made a powerful run 7 minutes before the break, which won a valuable corner that, on top of giving his team a chance to score, also handed priceless respite for his defence.
Even though they never really seemed worried about the fact they hadn’t scored, Chelsea were probably frustrated that they hand’t even managed to create a decent chance in the first half. A troubling moment cropped up when John O’Shea forcefully brought down Costa, who appeared to kick out at the centre back. Already on 4 yellow cards for the season, Costa would have missed the next game had the referee decided his reaction was bookable, and would have missed an automatic 3 matches had the referee deemed it violent and worthy of instant dismissal. As it happened, the referee booked only O’Shea for the original tackle. The half ended in goalless stalemate, with both teams having struck the woodwork, and only one manager satisfied with the opening 45 minutes.
The second half started almost exactly as the first half had, with Chelsea passing back and forth outside the Sunderland box. Two consecutive Chelsea corners amped up the pressure, the second of which led to a presentable headed chance for Cahill, that went straight at Pantilimon. For Chelsea, the irksome feeling was that this would be the type of match that they would draw, drop points, and relinquish their grip on the league, if only by a pinkie finger. Willian flashed wide from distance five minutes into the second half. Costa was always presenting himself as a forward option, but could never do anything with the ball when he got it, save for passing straight back out to the regimented assembly of team mates on the edge of the area.
Sunderland began to break with, if not more end-product, more purpose, and the crowd was swelling with every tackle and subsequent foray forward. Diego Costa eventually picked up a yellow card after flailing arm smashed Wes Brown in the face. Questions as to the deliberateness of the act only brought hazy answers, though you’d expect a professional athlete to be aware of the trajectory of his limbs. The clash against Tottenham will now be an off-day for the Chelsea striker. Scrums in the box occurred with every corner and free kick, and the game began to descend into haggardness and tetchy desperation as the hour mark approached. For all of their 75% second half possession, Chelsea had nout to show for it.
Tackles became less bridled, passes were going astray, and the crowd was in good, full voice. Jose Altidore and Jordi Gomez came on, for Rodwell and Fletcher, as Sunderland shuffled the pack. The team in red and white stripes seemed to be swelling in confidence and energy as they repeatedly stifled the Chelsea progress. The Blues, on the other hand, were looking altogether too languid, perhaps uncomfortable about playing in a noisy stadium (chuckle). A thundering Matic strike might well have winded Pantilimon, but he stopped it and held it. Wickham, a handful of minutes later, did the same to Courtois, who also saved, and held.
With Costa looking ripe for a second yellow, Mourinho took him (and Oscar) off and brought Didier Drogba and Loic Remy on for the final 15 minutes. It had been a wholly unsatisfactory day for Costa, who had been marshalled and handled superbly by O’Shea and Wes Brown, who had restricted the striker to 2 shots for the match. Lee Cattermole was also emerging as the match’s best player, breaking up play, intercepting passes and clearing with vigour and consistency. Altidore almost scored on a breakaway, then Chelsea broke dangerously immediately after. The game was there for the taking. Adam Johnson almost snatched it in the 83rd minutes, but shot scruffily wide.
Willian was replaced by Andre Shurrle, a last-gasp injection of attacking potency by Mourinho. Wickham again bustled muscularly up the pitch and was fouled by Matic, who was booked. Later, Johnson smashed just wide after being given far too much space in the centre. 2 minutes went up on the fourth official’s board. Too few to decide a victor, and so, with the home fans celebrating this like a victory, the spoils were shared. As Poyet said post-match “the most important thing was that we stopped Chelsea scoring”. Looking at Chelsea’s current form, that alone is worthy of a round of hearty congratulations.