Chelsea followed up their best performance of the season with what was easily their worst. Sunderland set out to defend and counter as the Blues got increasingly desperate to score, and the hosts executed their game plan to perfection. We were frustrated, angry and making mistakes, and Jose Mourinho's late gamble to steal a lead very nearly backfired. Instead, we got a 0-0 draw, and were somewhat lucky to escape with a point.
When a team is chasing a goal, there are certain attacking patterns that come from calm, patient play -- that's the kind that tends to result in goals -- and certain attacking patterns that step solely from impatience. Early in the first half, the Blues kept to the first regime. The ball was moved from side to side, gaps were opened up and probed, and it looked for all the world as though we'd eventually find a way through.
But as time went by we increasingly tried two desperate and thoroughly stupid attacking mechanisms. The first is the long-range no-hoper into a crowd of bodies, which led to a veritable cavalcade of blocks, particularly by the thoroughly impressive Lee Cattermole. And the second is just charging through the pack, which looks good for about half a second before the attackers get crowded out and lose the ball.
Which isn't to say that all of the match looked like that. Chelsea managed a couple of good chances in the first half, the first coming from a rare Sunderland set piece. Willian did superbly to bring the ball under control in the centre after a touch of pinball and then proceeded to set the Blues away, the move eventually culminating in the Brazilian blasting a shot off Costel Pantilimon's fingertips and then the base of his right-hand post.
The other was more interesting, because it was how they should have been playing the whole time. With half an hour gone, Willian pulled out to the flank and opened up a gap for Branislav Ivanovic to bomb through. The right back had had his rampaging game somewhat curtailed by the impressive Connor Wickham, but here he escaped, rushing into the penalty box and ... getting an angle shot saved by Pantilimon when a cutback would have been more appropriate.
The story painted so far is one of Sunderland defending deep and Chelsea sending wave after wave of broadly futile attacks in their vague direction, and that's more or less accurate. But as the match progressed, the Black Cats got braver, and they very nearly took the lead just after the Ivanovic chance. A Sunderland set piece went a bit wrong, but they eventually recovered and sent in a cross from the left which took a big deflection and ended up in the worst possible position: on Santiago Vergini's right boot.
The right back had escaped the wrong-footed Gary Cahill to get to the ball at the near post, and his flicked shot easily beat Thibaut Courtois (who'd had basically nothing to do up to that that point), floating over the big Belgian before making a very dainty landing atop the crossbar. It was a close call, and was probably exactly what Chelsea didn't need.
Mindful of the fact that Sunderland did indeed pose a real threat, the mood shifted from determination towards the terrible wilds of desperation. Shot after shot bounced off Sunderland players just in front of their penalty area, and at no point did it seem as though Pantilimon was going to have any trouble. Set pieces were no use either -- Cahill managed to nod straight at the keeper despite being held from a second-half corner, but the hosts were doing a very good job of giving our players the biggest, best hugs imaginable (they're so nice) whenever they wandered into the box, and we were so distracted by this awesome display of affection that we could barely move.
With 15 minutes to do and Chelsea looking increasingly focused on running the ball straight through the middle, Mourinho made a change, hauling off Diego Costa* and Oscar for Loïc Rémy and Didier Drogba. The idea, one assumes, was to start using the wide players to swing in crosses and to attack them with Drogba. Which might have been a good idea, but it didn't work.
*Who'd been booked in the second half for a nothing foul but could quite easily have been dismissed for kicking out at John O'Shea in the first -- weird refereeing nonwithstanding, he'll miss the Spurs game in midweek.
Why? Because pulling Oscar out of the centre caused the game to descend into chaos. Sunderland were able to attack in earnest, causing Chelsea some real problems through the unlikely figure of Jozy Altidore. And we weren't helping our cause either: some ridiculously poor passing gave the Black Cats the opportunity to drive at goal more than once, and we were arguably lucky that we weren't made to pay.
But by the end neither did really did enough to grab a goal, and Sunderland got the point they wanted. Which, well, good for them -- they played exceptionally well and made us look like amateurs going forward. As for Chelsea, we're still well clear atop the table, and if we can learn from this weak performance, all the better.
Onwards, upwards. We're not going to have things all our own way forever.