Chelsea ended their league campaign with a flourish by virtue of another away win, our 14th this season, this time at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland knew that wins for both Newcastle and Hull would see them have to pick up 3 points to guarantee survival; as it was, all four teams still fighting relegation at the beginning of the day lost. Chelsea still held an extremely slim hope of finishing in 2nd place, which would require a Tottenham win at Anfield and an unlikely goal swing of five. Liverpool cruised to a 3-1 victory and consigned Chelsea to our lowest league position in the Roman Abramovich era.
Frank Lampard and Alex were rested and stayed in London, with the former resting a knock to his knee. Guus Hiddink said after the game that he will certainly be fit for the FA Cup Final on Saturday. Juliano Belletti came in for the Englishman, only for the Brazilian himself to go off injured after 25 minutes, replaced by Michael Ballack. Branislav Ivanovic deputized for Alex. The game took a while to get going, with Michael Essien and Didier Drogba seeing half chances come and go, before a Grant Leadbitter cross narrowly missed the onrushing Kenwyne Jones with Petr Cech stranded. That was as good as it got for the Mackems in the first half as the away team dominated. Florent Malouda and Drogba both had shots well saved by Martin Fulop before Mikel expertly teed up Malouda, whose shot came crashing off the underside of the bar in the final play of the opening 45.
Sunderland came out of the interval knowing that both their nearest rivals were losing, and this complacency was punished with a goal of the highest order 2 minutes into the second period. Ballack’s clearance under pressure found Nicolas Anelka with his back to goal inside his own half. The Frenchman turned his marker before setting off towards the Sunderland goal. He twice beat Teemu Tainio before firing in an unstoppable shot from the right hand side, 25 yards from goal. The rocket swerved beautifully away from Fulop and nestled in the top corner; it was a goal worthy of winning the Golden Boot as the league’s top marksman moved to 19 league goals for the season. The contrast between the end of this season to the end of last season could not be more stark; one year ago he missed the penalty which handed Manchester United the Champions League, but a year later he sits proudly atop the Premier League’s goalscoring chart for the first time in his career.
With this goal spread a new wave of panic around the ground, but the Sunderland fans didn’t have to wait long before they were celebrating again. A Leadbitter cross was missed by Cech and Jones and the ball fell kindly to Keiran Richardson who kept his cool to plant a left foot volley in between the despairing dives of Cech, Ivanovic and Terry. Hiddink responded to the goal by bringing on Salomon Kalou in place of the tiring Michael Essien and that move was vindicated ten minutes later. Drogba whipped in a cross from a short corner and the ball was only half-cleared to a lurking Kalou, standing on the edge of the 18 yard box. The Ivorian took the ball down before curling home an inch-perfect strike at Fulop’s near post; the shot had too much power and direction for the Hungarian keeper and Chelsea had regained the lead, with Kalou helping his case for a new contract.
The game continued to flow as Sunderland sought a second reprise. A Phil Bardsley shot from distance was punched clear by Cech before the game’s deciding moment. Substitute Michael Mancienne slid in to block a cross but the ball hit flailing hand. Home fans and players pleaded alike but Mark Halsey waved away the appeal and played on. From the very next attack Anelka won a header and found Malouda behind the defence but his attempted lob was blocked by Fulop. Ashley Cole latched onto the rebound and with his weaker right foot volleyed home in between a cluster of angry Sunderland players. It was the left back’s first goal of the season and a belated one at that, but thoroughly deserved after an excellent campaign and with his right foot, too. The goals weren’t finished there, however, as Kenwyne Jones headed home a beautiful Andy Reid cross in injury time, finding space between Chelsea’s centre backs and keeper. Halsey blew the final whistle and attention for most of the crowd turned to events at Villa Park – the loudest cheer of the day came when news filtered through of the Geordies’ defeat and thus relegation as the Sunderland fans took time to laugh mercilessly at their local rivals.
Hiddink’s league record reads like this: played 13, won 11 with one draw and one defeat. This imperious end to the season has ensured that Chelsea finish in 3rd place, Hiddink’s number one requirement on joining the club. Although he will need to sort out some of the defensive lapses which plagued Chelsea during the latter stages of yesterday’s game in time for next week’s Cup Final, our form in front of goal is impressive. Anelka’s goal was, according to the Dutchman, the second aim of the game after winning the match, but ultimately it took a moment of individual brilliance from the Frenchman to secure the Golden Boot. Kalou and Cole took their goals excellently, belying their occasional profligacy in front of goal. Our first last-day win of the season since 2004 is welcome and sets us up nicely for the climax to the season on Saturday.