Chelsea travelled to the Stadium of Light and saw off a spirited Sunderland side, Carlo Cudicini’s inspired performance between the sticks denying the home team any chance of taking points off Avram Grant’s side, who are well and truly back in the title race.
Alex, Mikel and Drogba were all selected by the Israeli manager, who stuck with the 4-3-3 formation that so successfully tore apart Derby last time out. Dropped from the lineup were Ricardo Carvalho, the resurgent Claudé Makelélé and Nicolas Anelka.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane partnered the muscular Kenwyne Jones with young Irishman Roy O’Donovan in attack, who would look to feed off the service provided by fit again winger Carlos Edwards, and the chunky looking Andy Reid.
After just seven minutes, Sunderland had a penalty shout turned down by referee Mike Dean, after Kenwyne Jones beat Alex in the air. O’Donovan raced to reach the loose ball before Terry and the pair tangled just inside the area. However, the referee ruled that no foul had been committed and waved play on.
To rub salt into a very open wound, three minutes later, Terry scored his first goal of the season. Lampard’s corner was swung in from the left, Terry losing his marker to powerfully thump home the header from seven yards out. It was vintage John Terry.
A minute later, Michael Ballack had a snap shot at goal from the most optimistic of angles, the strike gathered comfortably by Craig Gordon. However, Sunderland were not deterred, and pushed hard for an equaliser, Carlos Edwards shooting well over from range.
With 26 minutes on the clock, Mikel was adjudged to have fouled Jones on the edge of the box, giving the Wearsider’s a fabulous chance to equalise. It was the robust Andy Reid who delicately curled the free kick towards the top corner, but Carlo Cudicini, revelling in his run of games, flew high to his left to make a stunning save, at the scene of one of his finest performances for Chelsea, in late 2001.
With five minutes of the half left, the Italian goalkeeper was again in the thick of the action. O’Donovan chased a loose ball towards the penalty area, but Cudicini raced out and gathered, well ahead of the Irish forward. However, with a display of immature petulance, the Sunderland striker left a foot in the challenge, a la Stephen Hunt on Petr Čech last season. Cudicini was visibly furious and chased after O’Donovan to remonstrate with him and convey his displeasure at the obvious immaturity of the forward.
Nonetheless, it was the brilliance of Cudicini that allowed Chelsea to take their 1-0 lead into the break.
Joe Cole set up a half chance for Salomon Kalou early on in the second stanza, his deep cross though was blazed over by the off balance Ivorian. On the hour, Keane decided to replace the tiring Edwards with Prica, as they searched for an equaliser.
With twenty-five minutes remaining, Chelsea could have wrapped up the points, had Drogba’s cross actually found the head of the onrushing Lampard. Mikel dived in to clear at the other end as a cross flew across the Chelsea six yard box. Michael Ballack replaced Essien, as Avram Grant looked for energy to shut out Sunderland, who continued to press forward.
Jones headed straight at Cudicini and Leadbitter fired dangerously wide from range, before Dwight Yorke and Shaun Wright-Phillips made substitute appearances for their respective sides.
Chelsea successfully negotiated the three minutes of injury time, to hold on for their tenth away win of the season, which takes us to within three points of Manchester United and Arsenal at the top of the Premiership table. Once more, Cudicini showed his true class, and the worth of having two top class goalkeepers at one club, as the absence of Čech wasn’t so keenly felt. The momentum is building now for the tightest title race in years, with any of the top three able to take it out.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Cudicini; Ferreira, Alex, Terry (c), A Cole; Ballack, Mikel, Lampard; J Cole, Drogba, Kalou.
Sunderland (4-4-2) Gordon; Bardsley, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins; Edwards, Whitehead (c), Leadbitter, Reid; O’Donovan; Jones.
Referee Mike Dean