Saturday evening’s late kick-off sees Chelsea meet Sunderland in a match that is important for both sides, but for different reasons. For Chelsea, a win keeps their title chances in their hands, as they’re 2 points behind Liverpool with a trip to Anfield on the horizon a week from Sunday. In addition, the Blues have a chance to heap pressure on Liverpool, with a win taking them 1 point above the Reds and Liverpool playing at lunchtime on Sunday.
For Sunderland, they’re still propping up the table, but still have a game in hand over rivals Norwich, Fulham, and Cardiff but must make up 6 points to be safe. However, a draw over Manchester City midweek was a vital point, though the Black Cats must rue the Vito Mannone mistake that may have cost them all three.
Both teams enter this match needing all 3 points to keep their separate challenges alive, particularly with just four matches left in the season.
Can Sunderland repeat what they did at the Etihad?
After a good run from Sunderland after the appointment of Gus Poyet and the run to the Capital One Cup final and in the FA Cup, the magic had seemingly fizzled out of the team. The promise and belief that Poyet had brought to the club had been replaced with rampant inconsistency and an problem that couldn’t be defined that brought about 7 losses in the last 10 matches.
Before the City match, even Poyet had admitted that something was wrong with his side, but he couldn’t put his finger on it, as he continued to attempt to find his best 11 but with little success. It almost appeared as if there was a lack of effort and commitment for some unknown reason, and it would condemn them to certain relegation.
While relegation is still on the horizon, hope springs eternal for a side that fully deserved points from their latest match against City, while also knowing that they may have scuppered the title hopes of a top side. It’s a win that could very well bring the morale of the club up, and they’ll need it, as Fulham and Cardiff both secured vital wins last week.
A repeat of that trick at Stamford Bridge will be quite a daunting task, though. Jose Mourinho’s men have conceded just 1 goal at Stamford Bridge in the league since the calendar turned to 2011 and who have motivation to win, as well. While conceding goals hasn’t necessarily been the biggest problem for Sunderland, their goal-scoring record has been — good for fourth-worst in the league. That doesn’t bode well for a team who needs a win and has to face the best defence in the league away from home. To win, Sunderland are going to have to channel the fighting spirit that they showed away against City and do so having just three days between matches.
They’re leading goal scorer is a winger who is predictable … or not.
Sunderland’s leading goal scorer for this campaign is Adam Johnson with 8 goals. That speaks to the main problem that the Black Cats have, which is similar to that of Chelsea — the strikers don’t score enough goals. Last season, Steven Fletcher fired Sunderland to safety, netting 11 times as their leading scorer and coming up with vital goals. This season, Fletcher has been ineffective, largely due to injury, and Jozy Altidore has failed to live up to the hype that his scoring record at AZ Alkmaar, and subsequently, Sunderland has not found a real replacement for Fletcher at striker.
Their leading scorer this season is Adam Johnson, a winger who’s come up with some very timely goals for the Black Cats. The interesting thing about Johnson is that his main way of beating defenders, and a few of the goals he’s scored, are from him making a run from the right touchline inside the fullback so that he can shoot with his left foot. Many an opponent knows this, but yet, few have actually stopped it.
Enter Cesar Azpilicueta, a right-footed defender at left back. If nothing else, he will be defending on his strong foot when Johnson comes inside, and at the very least, it will give him practice for defending Arjen Robben should we meet up with Bayern later in the Champions League. Azpilicueta has established himself as one of the best left backs in the Premier League, despite it not being his natural position, and should be able to quell what might be the only threat that Sunderland pose.
Sunderland’s defence always has a mistake in them.
As Wes Brown and Vito Mannone have shown, Sunderland will give up chances simply through a lack of focus. Sunderland have played well enough in their last two matches — City and Everton — to be able to get at least 4 points from the two. They were stifling Everton quite well until a cross from Gerard Deulofeu was diverted into the net by Brown. In his defence, Romelu Lukaku was lurking the area, but it was a mistake that ruined a good Sunderland performance that they probably earned a draw from.
As for Mannone, I have no clue what he was trying to do when he spilled that late shot from Samir Nasri and pushed the ball into his net. I can only think that it was a real moment of madness from a keeper who has been fairly reliable this season.
The other factor is that Phil Bardsley, John O’Shea, or Wes Brown don’t have a lot of pace or ball-playing ability. It means that playing from the back is generally not an option, so if you press them, they will play the ball long out of defence. Given the height and ability to win the high balls from our defensive midfielders and our centre backs, that could be a big factor in retaining possession when trying to break down a stubborn defence.
This will be another test of breaking down a stout defence, especially with Eden Hazard missing.
The one Achilles heel of this Chelsea side is that they’re very good when teams attack because it leaves space to exploit, but they’re not very good at opening up defences that sit deep. We’ve seen it against West Ham and Crystal Palace. Swansea did the same down to 10 men last week, and I expect Sunderland will come to Stamford Bridge to play for a draw. Hazard has been the main spark in creating space, but without him, Chelsea lack an identity of whether to play pass-and-move over short distances or try and stretch things by playing quicker and more direct.
Most of the time, the team gets caught between two methods of play. It leads to the opposition being able to constrict the spaces between midfield and defence and robbing Willian and Oscar of the kind of space that they need between the lines. Ironically, the goal against Swansea came from a quick route one type of ball over the top that Demba Ba was able to convert, and perhaps Ba is the one to give them that option against Sunderland, given his history of being a streaky goal scorer and his ability to give them more of a vertical threat.