Final Score: Sunderland 1 Chelsea 3
A CLUB in crisis, with commentators and analysts queueing up to pontificate about what's gone wrong. Ambitions that have had to be lowered considerably since the start of the season, such has been the extent of the underachievement. And a manager under intense pressure who is the subject of sustained abuse from his own club's fans.
Still, enough about Chelsea, third in the Premier League and about to contest the prestigious World Club Championships in Japan. After Saturday's latest setback, what on earth should we make of Sunderland, a team whose season is spiralling out of control despite an apparent lack of anger or angst?
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For the first time since Martin O'Neill took charge of his first game as Sunderland manager a year ago tomorrow, the Black Cats find themselves in the Premier League's bottom three, ostensibly because Southampton beat Reading to leapfrog them at the weekend, but more realistically because of a wretched four months that has seen them record just two league victories, and both of those against ten men. It is not mischief making to point out that for all his failings, Steve Bruce never presided over a team in the bottom three.
Given the extent of the Wearsiders' woes, you might expect fury and frustration, protests and panic. That was not apparent at the weekend, and in truth it has been hard to detect all season.
O'Neill remains stoic and unbroken, although his tetchy response to a question about self-doubt on Match of the Day on Saturday night suggests his unflappable demeanour perhaps hides a more anxious soul. The players remain united, confident in their belief that they can turn this around.
The fans? Grim resignation probably sums it up best. This appears to be the way of things at Sunderland, a club where dreams only exist to be dashed.
The loyalty and patience of the supporters is admirable, but it will surely be stretched to the limit if the Black Cats fail to beat Reading – one of only two clubs below them in the table – tomorrow night. It is only the start of December, but the rearranged game with the Royals already has the air of a defining moment.
“There are loads of games to play,” countered Adam Johnson, whose upturn in form has provided some of the few optimistic notes in the last few matches. “If we win a couple of games then we're out of the drop zone. Then everyone will be saying we're looking well.
“There's not a lot of points between eight or nine teams and it's too early to say we're in a relegation battle.
“It's up to us to try to do everything we can to win on Tuesday. The Reading game is massive for us, but it was always going to be even before the Chelsea game. Everyone knows it's our game in hand and it's important.”
They are all important now of course, and while defeat to a Chelsea side gradually rediscovering their old zest under Rafael Benitez should not be a source of embarrassment, the game's unravelling fed into a wider narrative of sustained underachievement.
As they had at Norwich six days earlier, Sunderland produced some of their best attacking football of the season. As was the case at Carrow Road though, it mattered little given the size of the deficit they were attempting to overhaul and the slackness of much of their defending.
All three of Chelsea's goals owed much to Sunderland errors, and for all that the hosts created problems of their own after the break, they were never going to overhaul a three-goal deficit.
Fernando Torres' first goal, an instinctive volley from an Eden Hazard cross, saw the Spaniard ghost in front of a flat-footed John O'Shea, while only Seb Larsson will know why he felt compelled to slide into Ramires in first-half stoppage-time to concede the penalty that effectively killed the game as a contest.
Chelsea's third, which came at the start of the second half, was even more unpalatable from a Sunderland perspective, with Phil Bardsley miscontrolling the ball in the area to allow Torres to drill in the strike which rebounded off the post to set up Mata to score with the rebound.
For most of the season, Sunderland's defending has been one of their few strong suits. Suddenly, though, O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar's lack of pace is being exposed and the absence of Lee Cattermole means the Black Cats no longer have a shielding presence at the base of midfield.
“We keep conceding silly goals and that's costing us,” admitted Johnson. “As a team, there were lots of positives, but that's apart from the silly goals we conceded. We were good and bad in equal measure.”
That is probably a fair assessment, but when the bad leads to the concession of three wholly avoidable goals, it doesn't really matter how good the good is.
Johnson's display was undoubtedly a positive, along with the performance of Connor Wickham, who replaced the injured Steven Fletcher and held the ball up effectively at the head of the attack. Once Fletcher returns to fitness, playing both strikers together is surely the way to go.
Danny Rose cemented his status as Sunderland's player of the season so far, even slipping into midfield to provide some energy and vision in the final quarter of the game.
Johnson's goal, a fierce, curling effort that surprised Petr Cech, threatened a recovery, but Cech saved well from Johnson and Wickham and Craig Gardner struck the crossbar with a free-kick in stoppage-time.
“The crowd here have seen difficult days before but battled through them,” said O'Neill. “They will naturally be anxious and a bit frustrated, but in the not-too-distant future it will be important that they stick with us.” Tomorrow night, for a start.