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Chelsea spoil di Canio debut with scrappy win

Mike Hewitt

Three points were earned at Stamford Bridge, but they were three utterly forgettable ones. Sunderland, bringing with then new manager Paolo di Canio*, made us work for our eventual 2-1 win, but the challenge of achieving that result was mostly self inflicted -- Chelsea started poorly and, save for a flurry just after halftime that was more enthusiastic than skillful, remained that way all match.

*His sweater was really really fascist.

Which is kind of silly, considering that this was close enough to our best eleven and the visitors are real candidates for the drop. Fortunately, we weren't given much cause to regret it.

There was quite clearly something wrong from kickoff. Sunderland employed a heavy press, and with all three of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar off their game (the latter was the worst offender), it was pretty difficult to see where the offence was going to come from. Ryan Bertrand should have provided an answer, but although he made some positive runs the end product was sorely lacking as Simon Mignolet and company mopped up everything Chelsea threw at them in the first half.

Craig Gardner decided to help out his defence by wiping out Demba Ba on what should have been a fast break, the midfielder going in late and high with his studs and inflicting an injury that would eventually necessitate the striker's withdrawal. It was a borderline red card, but Neil Swarbrick decided to show mercy and show yellow instead. The referee was again lenient when a free kick landed on Matthew Killgalon's outstretched arm in the penalty area.

In the meantime, Chelsea were looking obnoxiously mediocre in front of goal. The first 'shot' on target came in the 27th minute, when Ramires directed an apologetic header in Mignolet's direction, and the only other time the Blues managed to get the ball on frame was a similarly weak effort off Hazard's forehead. It was, all in all, a pretty depressing half, and then we got into throwing-everything-at-everything territory when Sunderland went ahead on the stroke of halftime.

In fairness, the visitors had looked pretty dangerous whenever they managed to break forward. Stephane Sessegnon was having a good game, and Sunderland were using the space between the pivot and the centre backs to great effect and threatened intermittently on the break, and only a timely block from David Luiz had prevented Adam Johnson opening the scoring in the 19th minute.

The actual goal was far messier. David Luiz had once again intervened to block a shot, this time from Connor Wickham, and this time the corner was far more dangerous. Johnson's cross was flicked past Petr Cech, and poor Cesar Azpilicueta was caught back on his heels as he attempted a clearance, hitting the ball into his own net and giving Sunderland a 1-0 lead. Onlookers were not amused.

Fortunately, someone activated the Zorres-signal at halftime. Coming in for the injured Demba Ba over the interval, the masked version of Fernando Torres injected immediate awesomeness to proceedings. It took all of two minutes for the substitution to make a difference as Chelsea broke at speed from a corner. Hazard did well to get the ball clear, and from then on Torres did the rest, gliding past Danny Rose and then playing Oscar into space.

It's difficult to overstate just how poor Oscar's first touch was. Torres' pass was essentially perfect, easily enough for the Brazilian to control the ball, round the goalkeeper and slot into an empty net. Instead, what happened is Oscar knocked the ball into Mignolet, whose panicked kick save ricocheted off Kilgallon's ankle and rolled slowly into the bottom corner.

Granted, Torres was following in and would have slotted home had the ball not been on the happy side of the post, but it was still quite clearly a stroke of huge misfortune for the visitors, who had thoroughly deserved their lead. And more back luck was to Sunderland's come way eight minutes later.

Azpilicueta, attempting to make up for his own goal, smashed a long-range effort in the vague direction of Mignolet's goal. The shot might even have found its way past the Belgian, but Kilgallon intervened, deflecting the ball behind for a corner. And from that corner, Chelsea struck.

David Luiz had, for long spells of the game, been the only outfield player looking remotely competent, and it was fitting that he had a major hand in the winner. The curly-haired and stunningly gorgeous centre back rushed onto a partial clearance, smashing the ball back into the mixer. His volley bounced off the right heel of Branislav Ivanovic, wrong-footing the goalkeeper and finding its way inside the post. Suddenly, it was 2-1.

And that's when Chelsea switched off again. Fortunately, so too did Sunderland. In the first half, the visitors had shown steel that had largely been forgotten under Martin O'Neill, but their newfound confidence seemed to crumble as soon as they faced a significant setback.

A better side would have taken advantage of the Blues' sluggish play (conversely, we would have been forced out of our lethargy if we were ever under serious threat). There were no significant chances as the game worse down, and the only events of any real note involved Craig 'why am I still on the pitch' Gardner injuring David Luiz with a strong tackle before the defender retaliated with one of those accidental-looking elbows to Wickham's head.

When the dust cleared, we had a 2-1 win. Given the personnel that took the field, it's a disappointing scoreline and fairly poor performance, but at this stage of the year, points are points, and we'll happily take them. The result, combined with Tottenham Hotspur's 2-2 home draw against Everton, sees Chelsea back in third place. Let's see if we can hang out there for a while.

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