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Hazard's brilliance settles seven-goal thriller
Full-time: Sunderland 3 Chelsea 4
DESPITE being a self-confessed Chelsea fan, Gustavo Poyet will have taken no satisfaction from his former club's hugely entertaining 4-3 defeat of his current employers, Sunderland.
As an ex-attacking midfielder of considerable repute, however, even the Uruguayan cannot fail to have been impressed by the match-winning display from Eden Hazard that settled a topsy-turvy encounter at the Stadium of Light.
Hazard set up one goal and scored two more as Chelsea kept up the pressure on Premier League leaders Arsenal with an attacking display that Sunderland simply could not contain.
The Black Cats were lively enough in attack themselves, scoring three goals of their own through Jozy Altidore, John O'Shea and Phil Bardsley, who also scored a crucial own goal two minutes before making amends in the Chelsea box, but remain rooted to the foot of the table in the wake of Crystal Palace's win on Tuesday.
Their character and spirit are no longer in question following Poyet's replacement of Paolo Di Canio. Whether they boast sufficient quality to beat the drop, however, remains a moot point.
They will not be involved in many more exciting games than this, but for all that they deserve credit for clinging on to Chelsea's coat-tails, the visitors would have had only themselves to blame had they not hung on, with all three of Sunderland's goals coming from a set-piece. The first arrived in the 14th minute, and owed much to Poyet's surprise decision to replace last season's leading goalscorer, Steven Fletcher, with the far-from-prolific Altidore.
Rugged and aggressive with his back to goal, Altidore troubled John Terry and Gary Cahill throughout, drawing fouls from the experienced centre-half duo and doing his best to retain possession despite limited support.
He went into last night's game without a Premier League goal for the Black Cats, but when an opportunity presented itself, he was not found wanting.
Having won a free-kick close to the edge of the area, the American watched as Andrea Dossena drilled a poor effort into the wall. The ball broke kindly for Jack Colback to feed a pass into Altidore's feet, however, and with Cahill standing off meekly, Sunderland's summer signing from AZ Alkmaar turned adroitly before drilling a low strike past Petr Cech.
Chelsea had already lost at Newcastle this season, but any sense that the North-East air did not agree with Jose Mourinho's men was tempered within three minutes, which was as long as the Black Cats held their lead.
Hazard and Juan Mata had already displayed glimpses of attacking finesse prior to Altidore's opener, and it was the former who played a major role in the equaliser with a surging run that took him past Craig Gardner on the left-hand side.
His cross into the six-yard box was inviting, and no one picked up Frank Lampard as he made one of his trademark runs to head home from close range. With Friday's World Cup draw looming, the veteran midfielder continues to make timely nudges in Roy Hodgson's direction.
Belgium are being touted as World Cup dark horses in a number of quarters, and the top seeds will be hoping Hazard leads them to glory in Brazil.
He was bewitching for much of last night's game, and after Cech turned Dossena's fiercely-hit half-volley around the upright to keep the scores level, Hazard produced a moment of magic to fire Chelsea ahead.
Both Gardner and Bardsley might have done more to get close to him, but there was still much to admire in the midfielder's driving run infield from the left and crisp low drive that nestled into the far corner of the net.
Hazard, whose footwork and turn of pace caused Bardsley no end of problems, went close again on the stroke of half-time, but the interval came at a good time for the Black Cats, who were able to regroup after a torrid ten-minute spell.
Poyet's urgings clearly had an effect, as it took just five second-half minutes for Sunderland to claim an equaliser.
The goal owed much to some wretched Chelsea defending, a trait that has hampered the London club on a number of occasions this season, with Emanuele Giaccherini's scuffed corner being allowed to travel a long way into the penalty area.
Bardsley flicked it on via a back-heel, both Wes Brown and Branislav Ivanovic failed to make contact with wild swings, and O'Shea calmly stabbed home his first goal of the season from ten yards.
The defender displayed commendable composure with the ball at his feet, but the same could not be said of Fernando Torres seven minutes later, with the Spaniard adding to his growing catalogue of embarrassing misses.
The goal was gaping when Vito Mannone parried Hazard's strike into his path, but Torres ballooned over the crossbar from eight yards. No Chelsea striker has scored a Premier League away goal during the whole of 2013. On the evidence of Torres' display, it's not hard to see why.
You don't need goalscoring strikers if you've got an attacking midfielder like Hazard of course, and the Belgian's second goal was as good as you could wish to see.
Having played the ball into Lampard, he received it back via a back-heel, and after dancing around a static O'Shea, he drilled another crisp finish beyond Mannone.
He almost claimed another assist shortly after, teeing up former Newcastle striker Demba Ba for a shot he dragged wide, and Ba was involved again as Bardsley inexplicably handed Chelsea their fourth goal on a plate.
Under no pressure at all as he attempted to deal with Ba's harmless cross the right, the full-back stabbed into his own net to make it two own goals in the space of seven league games.
To his credit, Bardsley immediately made amends at the other end, stabbing home after Chelsea failed to deal with another corner, but despite their three goals, Sunderland were unable to claim a point.
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