Stadium of Light, Sunderland
8th December, 15:00 GMT
There was a time early on in the season when Chelsea were firing on all cylinders. They had beaten just beaten bitter rivals Tottenham 4-2 on the road and the style of play was a joy to behold. It seemed that it was finally time to step out from the shadows of Mourinho’s Chelsea and for new leaders to step up. Two months on, Chelsea find themselves ousted from the Champions League, something that was all but ensured after the result in Turin, Di Matteo sacked only to be replaced by an old ‘friend’ in Rafael Benitez and a season almost spiraling into abyss. Since that away day at Tottenham, it has been 7 Premier League games without victory – the worst sequence in 17 years, a trend they must arrest if they are to remain in contention for Champions League spots next season, without the usual wobbles.
Sunderland started the season well, or it would be fair to say that Steven Fletcher started the season rather too well. From there on it has been a down-slide as they have won just one of their last nine Premier League games while Steven Fletcher’s form too has suffered. The Black Cats now find themselves just one place and one point above the relegation zone. Martin O’Neil must rouse his troops or it might be too late to stem the rot.
Team News And Tactical Brief
On the injuries front, Wes Brown and influential midfielder and Captain Lee Cattermole are out to knee injuries, while reports suggest that John O’Shea is recovering from his injuries but is not likely to make a return as of yet. Steven Fletcher is expected to recover from his ankle injury in time to return to the line-up in a crucial game for the Wearside club. However if he does not recover as expected, Connor Wickham will start up front.
Sunderland will be expected to line-up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, something they have consistently done over the course of the season. Martin O’Neil relies on his wingers to provide the main attacking impetus with Sebastian Larsson and Adam Johnson, the former Manchester City man, on the flanks and Stéphane Sessegnon down the middle who too occasionally drifts out wide. Of late, Chelsea have been struggling against teams who prefer to attack down the wings rather than through the middle with Atletico, Shakhtar or Juventus to name a few and hence Larsson, who played in the midfield pivot in the game against Norwich, will be expected to resume his role on the wings.
While Sunderland have the 7th best defensive league record in the league, they have not been able to secure the points on account of the defence not being able to hold on to winning positions and off-late the goals have dried up as well. Opposition teams have managed to play their way through them with relative ease and they have been susceptible to set-pieces as well. Sunderland’s best hopes will be to utilize their prowess from the wings to the maximum and defending stoically against Chelsea’s ‘slippery’ midfield. The services of Lee Cattermole, an absolutely no-nonsense tackler, will be missed in shutting down Chelsea’s attacking threat.
Probable Starting Line Up(4-4-1-1) : Mignolet(GK); Bardsley, Cuellar, Kilgallon, Rose; Larsson, Gardner, Colback, Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher
Thankfully for him and Chelsea, Rafael Benitez has finally managed to get his first win as Chelsea’s ‘Interim’ Manager. The midweek thrashing of Nordsjælland did not prove enough to qualify for the knock-out stages of Champions League but it atleast managed to calm the nerves at Stamford Bridge. The ‘Boo-boys’ are not likely to be silenced anytime soon, for which they have a very genuine reason, but the performance on Wednesday night showed that there might still something be left in the season after all.
Among the absentees, John Obi Mikel has been served a three match domestic suspension for “using threatening and/or abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour” after Chelsea’s ill-tempered clash against Manchester United early on in the season. John Terry, Daniel Sturridge and Frank Lampard remain out injured for the game, although Lampard is expected to be closer to recovery.
Benitez has started where Di Matteo left in terms of squad rotation and formations. Chelsea would take to the field in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with Azpilicueta expected to make a return to the starting line-up at the expense of Gary Cahill even though the latter was defensively sound and among the goals in midweek. Considering that he has been better at the right-back position than Ivanovich, he looks to be the right choice with Sunderland’s style of play. Ivanovich himself will resume his duties at centre-back position alongside David Luiz, returning from one game domestic suspension, who gave another strong performance under the new management. In the final minutes of the game in midweek Luiz was playing in a defensive midfield role, one of many tactical tweaks that Benitez has performed to good effect and apart from the final half an hour at Upton Park, Chelsea have looked defensively solid.
In absence of John Obi Mikel, Oriol Romeu will step up into the defensive midfield role. His performance against Nordsjælland caught many an eye, alongside that of Torres and Hazard. He looked thoroughly comfortable on the ball and was not hesitant in making tackles. Against a Sunderland midfield trying to shut the shop on Chelsea, his ball distribution would be of immense importance, something which Ramires for all his tireless runs cannot offer. Victor Moses, who started for two consecutive games, will make way for Oscar as the manager would look to pounce on an encouraging win to embark on a successful run.
With the familiar midfield triumvirate restored, Chelsea would look to play their way through stoic Sunderland lines. Although the intensity of pressing up the field is not expected to be as ferocious as was against Nordsjælland, Chelsea will look to dominate possession and win back the ball higher up the field to punish a weak Sunderland defence. The absence of Lee Cattermole will aid their midfield dominance. Fernando Torres managed to end his goal drought as he banged in a brace and looked thoroughly interested in the game for a change.
Chelsea have been found out several times during the course of the season against well organised counter attacking teams. Even as Sunderland are not likely to be as well organised, their strength on the flanks could trouble them and Chelsea would need to be on their guard against the likes of Sebastian Larsson and Sessegnon.
Probable Starting Line Up( 4-2-3-1) : Petr Cech(GK); Azpilicueta, Luiz, Ivanovic, Cole; Ramires, Romeu; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres
- Chelsea have won 14 of their last 15 matches against Sunderland in all competitions.
- Chelsea have scored at least 2 goals in 6 of their last 7 away matches against Sunderland in all competitions.
- Sunderland have recorded victories in only 2 of their last 22 matches in the Premier League.
- Chelsea have failed to win their last 7 Premier League games.
Player To Watch out for
Its him again! Fernando Torres scored a brace against FC Nordsjælland in Chelsea’s final Champions League outing for the season. Even though the goals did not matter in the end, his performance along with that of Hazard and Romeu’s were massive positives to take from the game for Chelsea. The limelight will be on him, again! If he can rediscover his goal-scoring consistency, Chelsea will have gained something from a dismal European campaign after all.
Sunderland 1-2 Chelsea
Both teams have been on a poor run of form recently but Chelsea managed to get their house sorted to some extent by a securing a record Champions League victory. Sunderland will score, but Chelsea will manage to pull this one through.
Blast from the Past