I remember the giddy days of mid October. It was a glorious time, Chelsea were top of the Premier League and were in prime position to qualify from Champions League Group E. Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were combining so well we spent half our time figuring out a nickname for the trio. Even Fernando Torres was scoring goals.
And then came November. Long the gloomiest month for Chelsea supporters, this time around it was particularly brutal. A crippling run of form in the league carried over to the vital match in Turin, seeing the Blues on the wrong end of a 3-0 embarrassment. Beloved manager Roberto di Matteo got the axe. His inverse was appointed to lead the club for the remainder of the year.
Rafa Benitez's first three games in charge went... well, they went poorly. Back to back 0-0 draws were followed up by a 3-1 defeat at Upton Park which saw Chelsea utterly helpless once West Ham decided to try to play through midfield. Even the first win under the new manager was depressing, a 6-1 romp against Nordsjaelland overshadowed by a) the Blues being eliminated from the Champions League and b) it being Nordsjaelland.
Chelsea needed a win at the Stadium of Light. They needed it badly. Fortunately, a win is exactly what they got, with two goals from Fernando Torres followed up by a second-half strike off the boot of Juan Mata enough to dispatch Sunderland in a match that was ultimately far more comfortable than it looked.
The final margin of victory should have been higher. In a competently-refereed universe, the hosts would have been down to ten men within the first two minutes after Mata linked up with Hazard and Sebastian Larsson hauled the midfielder off-balance in the penalty area and allowed Simon Mignolet to collect. Hazard didn't go down, but the pullback completely prevented him from shooting -- it's this sort of non-call that encourages players to go down at the slightest of contact.
Happily, that proved but a temporary setback. Hazard was being given far too much space to operate down the left flank, and he took full advantage of that eleven minutes in to set up the opening goal. Torres had already missed out on a clear (albeit difficult) chance when he failed to control a loose clearance in the box, but this time he made no mistake, running onto Hazard's cross and slamming it into the top corner with the bottom of his foot.
Much like the first half against West Ham, Chelsea were in complete control, pinning the Black Cats back into their own half. And the Blues actually looked like they had a plan going forward, with Mata and Hazard pulling the strings and allowing Torres to get fully involved in the attack.
There was a major setback when Oriol Romeu went off with an injured knee in the 20th minute. With John Obi Mikel serving the first match of a three-game suspension, Benitez was forced to turn to Oscar to accompany Ramires in the pivot, which rapidly assumed the consistency of microwaved butter, allowing Sunderland to cut through more or less at will.
It was all looking a bit Upton Park, but fortunately for Chelsea Larsson had another whoopsie in the box, cutting down Ramires for no apparent reason on the verge of halftime. This time, Mark Halsey deigned to point to the spot, and Torres took the ball off a bemused-looking David Luiz and smacked an excellent penalty into the side netting to make it 2-0 -- that was four goals in two games for the suddenly happy-looking striker.
And Torres' contribution to the game didn't end there. Just after the break, a poor clearance gave him a window for a beautifully-struck snapshot that crashed off the underside of the bar, hit the post, and rolled straight to Mata, who slotted in to give the Blues a three-goal advantage. It could have been more, but Chelsea ended up relaxing and allowing Sunderland the initiative.
At 3-0, the Blues could afford to coast, but they contrived to lose the clean sheet through some thoroughly lackadaisical play in the in the 66th minute. Petr Cech, who'd been making some rather strange punches all match, only partially cleared a corner, an error that was compounded by David Luiz's poor secondary clearance. That led to Adam Johnson picking up the ball on the left side of the Chelsea box, and his pop at goal from an acute angle ended up flying in past a perplexed Cech,
The rest of the match was pretty straightforward. With a two-goal advantage, the points were never really at stake, and the Blues could afford to sleepwalk through the remaining twenty-something minutes, ultimately emerging with a fairly comfortable 3-1 win. Frank Lampard's return from injury 79 minutes in made the victory even sweeter.
Beating Sunderland doesn't mean much, of course, but with Torres doing well and Chelsea on a run of two wins and nine goals in their past two matches... well, it's a start. Don't get too excited yet, but things may well be turning around for the better.