WITH Sunderland sitting nervously a point above the Premier League's bottom three, Martin O'Neill only has designs on making things worse for a Premier League manager under far greater pressure from the club's supporters this afternoon.
O'Neill and Rafael Benitez might have had their problems with one another in the past, but the new Chelsea manager has to increase the worries across Wearside to avoid a further barracking from Blues fans.
Only victories will ease, albeit probably only slightly, Benitez's situation in west London, where the appointment of the former Liverpool boss a fortnight ago has angered Chelsea fans.
Loading article content
There is likely to be further protests from those in blue high in the North Stand at the Stadium of Light today, when Chelsea have a ten-point gap to make up on Premier League leaders Manchester United.
But even O'Neill, who had a number of run-ins as Aston Villa manager with Benitez over Liverpool's pursuit of Gareth Barry in 2008, thinks it is staggering to think there has been a change of coach just months after winning the Champions League and FA Cup double.
"You'd have to say it was a big surprise that Roberto di Matteo went after everything he'd done for Chelsea in recent times,” said O'Neill. “The Champions League was the holy grail for Chelsea and they won it.
“We were all pretty surprised, particularly with the start they had this season, it was really great. It was only the last couple of games of his tenure that they didn't get the results. Their performances early season, everybody was raving about them so it came as a major surprise.
“Nothing too much surprises any of us about football but I was genuinely taken aback by that (sacking). If we asked a few other managers I think they'd think the same thing."
While aware of Benitez's critical comments about Chelsea during his time in charge of Liverpool, O'Neill thinks the departure of a club stalwart like di Matteo has inflamed the situation.
But the Sunderland boss will not be making too much of a deal about his previous bust-ups with Benitez, saying: "I'm sure we have (settled our differences), I'm not sure whether we have or not. I'm sure we have, it's that long ago.”
Sunderland head in to visit of Chelsea having won just one of their previous ten games. Benitez is trying to address a slide of just two victories from their last 14 matches in all competitions.
Worryingly for Sunderland, though, Chelsea did find their scoring touch on Wednesday to finish off their Champions League action for the season with a 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland.
Out-of-sorts £50m striker Fernando Torres hit two goals to remind Sunderland – who have just 13 goals from 14 league games so far and have lost their last four games at home – goals can soon start to flow if confidence returns.
"When Torres came over to England he was absolutely sensational, brilliant,” said O'Neill. “He scored a couple in midweek and he certainly looks a lot better.
"Strikers do go through losses of form. There's an element of puzzlement there because suddenly a very fine player doesn't become a bad one almost overnight. To the outsider his loss of form has continued for longer that you were expecting but there are good signs for him.”
He added: “It's important for us to address our home form. It's not been good enough. Chelsea is a really tough game as is Reading on Tuesday, so we have to go again and take on the positives from the second half at Norwich.
“It's vital we have a number of goalscorers and share the goals around because we are relying on one or two sources (Steven Fletcher and Stephane Sessegnon).”
Midfield, in the absence of skipper Lee Cattermole, will be a key area at the Stadium of Light if Sunderland are to emerge with anything. O'Neill has confirmed his captain will be missing until February and is contemplating a recall for David Meyler after today, now 28 days of his three-month loan to Hull passed.
"I'd say Lee will probably be out about another two months,” said O'Neill, knowing Sunderland face Reading on Tuesday and a trip to Manchester United a week today.
“I knew the news wouldn't be too good. It could have been worse but it could have been better.
“I'll give recalling Meyler some consideration. We've got the two games coming up in quick succession so I would look at that.”