After a 6-1 drubbing of FC Nordsjaelland midweek, Chelsea return to Premier League action on Saturday to face a Sunderland team who have flattered to deceive in recent weeks and find themselves on the fringes of a relegation battle. While Chelsea finally showed their clinical nature in front of goal against the Danish side, Sunderland have yet to find their goal-scoring form from anyone not named Steven Fletcher. In the month of October, their second-leading happened to be Demba Ba by virtue of an own goal.
However, Steven Fletcher may be out with injury, meaning that Martin O’Neill will have to pick from Louis Saha, Connor Wickham, or Frazier Campbell to lead the line. More concerning for Sunderland is their inability, overall, to score goals, especially against a Chelsea side that seemingly found their goal scoring form midweek.
For Chelsea, there will be a welcome return for Frank Lampard as he is passed fit from his calf troubles and available for the Sunderland match and the Club World Cup trip. However, John Terry has not recovered from his knee injury and will not travel to Japan after Saturday’s match and Daniel Sturridge is a doubt for Japan as well. Fortunately, Fernando Torres has broken his recent goal scoring drought after netting twice against Nordsjaelland stopping the clock at just over 11 hours without a goal. More positively, the side showed their first signs of life and determination, although results in Donetsk did not go their way. They will be looking to pick up the pieces and a few points, given that the Manchester derby is happening later on Sunday.
Sunderland have at times looked a dangerous side, but something’s missing.
I think it’s possibly the most distinctive feature of the Sunderland side. They’re a side that do have good players, who have a very good manager, who play in front of passionate fans, yet they somehow are lacking a bit of something in their play. Given the quality of players like Steve Sessegnon and Adam Johnson, you would think that this team would be safely in the top half of the table, yet here they are in December and they’re just a point ahead of being in the relegation places.
Sometimes when watching Sunderland, it appears as if they’re not really sure how to play. O’Neill has always imparted great structure to his sides, making them hard to break down, which is true since they’ve only conceded 18 this season. However, O’Neill’s teams have always been quick to counter and take their chances and Sunderland just haven’t done that, scoring just 13 times. Home has been particularly kind to their defensive record with just 7 goals conceded.
The key to Sunderland is breaking down that defence because of the fact that they’ve struggled to score goals, and more to the point, O’Neill doesn’t seem to quite know why.
If Fletcher doesn’t play, who does Sunderland turn to as a striker?
The absence of Steven Fletcher would be a massive blow to Sunderland as he’s the only man to really generate any sort of goal scoring threat this season. His replacements are either very young and inexperienced, Wickham and Campbell, or very injury prone, Saha.
However, if I’m O’Neill, I’m going with the man that has struck more goals against Chelsea than any other member of that current squad, and that man is Louis Saha.
As a Chelsea supporter, it seems like any time Saha plays against Chelsea, he scores. When he played for United and Everton, he managed to score vital goals against us for fun, although his history also comes with a rash of injuries that have kept him off the pitch and probably cost him reaching his massive potential.
I think, especially in this match, playing a threatening striker will be paramount because Chelsea have started to find a bit of rhythm in attack under Rafa Benitez. If Sunderland can’t manage 1 or 2 goals, I fear that there might not be any way for them to win this match, because I can’t see them stopping Chelsea from scoring at least 1.
Beware of their quality in two players, Sessegnon and Johnson.
I think both Sessegnon and Johnson have a point to prove. Sessegnon came as a highly-touted player from PSG with bags of talent and the ability to score and create chances. Johnson arrived from Manchester City after showing glimpses of his talent but in search of more regular playing time to show his abilities. Neither has really lived up to the hype behind them.
Sessegnon, at times, looks like a passenger who doesn’t really track back and doesn’t dictate the play from the higher areas of the pitch like a player of his talent should, and you do see glimpses of that talent in some of the passes that he makes. Johnson hasn’t settled into the side, possibly because O’Neill does prefer that his wingers put in some crosses that are dangerous, and that hasn’t really been a feature of Johnson’s game, who likes to cut in on his left foot, but doesn’t really have a right foot.
Though Johnson does lead the team in assists with 3, you could argue that that’s a rather paltry number when coupled with just 1 goal for the £10 million that they spent. If Sunderland are to have any success, they must find a way to get more out of both players.
Part of the reason their defence is so good is the play of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
The reason that I bring up Mignolet is that not only is he the goalkeeper that allowed O’Neill to let Craig Gordon leave on a free, but he’s also the goalkeeper that is keeping Chelsea-loanee Thibault Courtois and his tremendous form for Atletico Madrid from getting the number 1 shirt for the Belgian national side. Mignolet has done quite well for them, particular given the names that populate the Sunderland defence, such as John O’Shea, Carlos Cuellar, and Craig Gardner. While not a great defence, the organisation has been good and Mignolet has provided a steady rock in goal for the Black Cats.
Have Chelsea possibly turned a corner, despite being eliminated from the Champions League?
I think, though, that this match is less about what the Black Cats can do and more about the mindset of Chelsea. Being the Champions League winners and being eliminated before the knockout stages is a tough pill to swallow, so it will be interesting to see how Chelsea possibly pick themselves up after such a disappointing outcome.
However, the positives to that final match against Nordsjaelland is that for the first time this season, I felt that we finally saw the ruthlessness that used to exist last season in the side. Yes, Nordsjaelland were a bad side and were fielding a much weakened defence through injury, but the Blues made them pay for every mistake that they made and had they finished every chance, could have scored in double digits.
Although there were a few fluffed chances, I did feel that the team showed a bit of mental steel and intensity that may have been lacking over the past few weeks of bad form, and perhaps might be able to use that launch them into a decent run. They will need it as they travel to Japan and face a period where they will play 7 matches, including this one, before the new year.