Football. Anyone remember it? For those of you who have let it slip your minds, it used to be this intriguing ball game which was played on lush, green grass, you know, when England still had lush, green grass. But that was before the snow came, the roads froze, some people fell over, and football came to a sudden halt. Okay, so it’s been less than two weeks since we played Watford but you get my drift. Stamford Bridge has been a barren place for the last thirteen days or so, but the most unlikely saviours – Sunderland – have appeared on the horizon to kick us off again and make the world a better place once more.
Only our second game of 2010 sees the Black Cats travel down the treacherous roads to SW6, unless of course it’s been called off by the time you’re reading this.
Taking the optimists view though we’ll assume some grit has been found at the back of the cupboard and the area around the ground is safe enough to walk on without getting impaled by an icicle, beheaded by a snowball, or clattered by an ice-skating police horse.
Sunderland currently sit comfortably in mid-table mediocrity, nestled in between Stoke City and Everton in 11th. Although they have picked up some notable results this season – wins against Arsenal and Liverpool stand out, as well as a draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford where the panicky home side scored an equaliser in injury-time – their away form is not at all eye-catching. They have only recorded one league win on their travels and that came on the opening day of the season against Bolton.
Recent league form has also been stuttering at best, with Steve Bruce’s side not picking up a win since edging past Arsenal at the end of November. Indeed, it is their only win in 12 of their last league games. Confidence would have been boosted by a 3-0 FA Cup win over Barrow before the ‘great freeze of 2010’, but at the moment Sunderland are displaying relegation form.
Sunderland also have their fair share of injuries to contend with, as no less than six players are expected to miss out on Saturday. Andy Reid, Kenwyne Jones and Lee Cattermole are all doubtful, while John Mensah, Anton Ferdinand and ‘keeper Craig Gordon are all definitely out of contention. Michael Turner is also suspended.
We enter the game with two wins on the spin under our belts and a fortuitously timed winter break which has helped us forget a few pre-New Year foibles with the squad/tactics/John Obi Mikel (delete as applicable). The latter option will be shoved to the back of the mind once again on Saturday as he, along with Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou are on international duty. José Bosingwa is definitely out through injury, but Deco is nearing match fitness following his absence. Florent Malouda also returns to the fray following a one-match ban.
Striker Daniel Sturridge will be looking to keep his place in the starting XI after his goals against Watford in the FA Cup, while the absence of the Africans will give us all chance to speculate on which other youngsters may start the game in their place, only for our expectations to be dashed by the selection of Juliano Belletti instead.
We’ve gone past the half-way stage of the Premier League now so every team we face from now would have already been beaten – or, more realistically, played – by us earlier on in the season. Sunderland are one of the teams who we’ve taken all the points against, with the Stadium of Light fixture taking place back in August. An opener from Darren Bent was cancelled out in the second-half by a Michael Ballack equaliser, and this goal was followed by further efforts from Frank Lampard – from the penalty spot – and Deco to give us a 3-1 win. The 86th minute substitute that day, replacing Deco? One Andriy Shevchenko.
While that seems many moons ago, the last time Sunderland beat us in any competition was just under nine years ago, when they made it three wins from the three last meetings between the two sides with a 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s 70th minute substitute that day, replacing Albert Ferrer? One John Terry.
Thankfully it doesn’t like it’s a scoreline which will be repeated on Saturday. Sunderland have been poor lately and for all our minor problems, we can still do the business at home. Sometimes. With Manchester United at home to Burnley and Arsenal facing a double header with Bolton, they’ll be expected to pick up points. We need to do the same. Unless a snowflake has fallen on the tracks at Fulham Broadway and all games are postponed until March.