You will forgive, I hope, an amateur dabbler in match reportage if he happens to overlook recent off-field events in light of a rare Premier League victory for Chelsea. The performance the Blues put on against Sunderland seems an invitation to embrace a fleeting glimpse of happiness rather than continuing to wallow. 3-1 is a perfectly respectable result, which is rare enough on its own for us, but the accompanying performance should be enough to make even the most miserable supporter crack a smile.
Chelsea's last two league games at Stamford Bridge followed a fairly straightforward first-half script. Against Norwich and Bournemouth, the Blues were clearly superior on the ball but utterly lacking in cutting edge, which turned out ok in the former match and ... not so ok in the latter. There were no such problems here.
The first goal arrived inside five minutes. Younes Kaboul conceded a corner on the Chelsea right, and Willian dropped a deft inswinger onto the penalty spot. The delivery was superb, but it was met with a header that's difficult to describe as anything other than perfect. Branislav Ivanovic, goalless until today, greeted the ball with such venom that even a touch from Costel Pantilimon failed to prevent it fizzing into the top corner to give the Blues a 1-0 lead.
That clearly wasn't enough for a rampant Chelsea attack. Indeed, the only reprieve the visitors had between wave after wave of pressure was a farcical interlude caused by
Anthony Taylor Roger East losing his free kick spray. Said free kick came to nothing, but the Blues doubled their advantage shortly thereafter through another player mired in an extended goal drought. Ivanovic's driven cross failed to find Pedro first time, but it did flummox the defence enough for the summer signing to pounce on the loose ball and drive it home.
Both Willian and Ivanovic had chances to extend that lead further, and they weren't the only Chelsea players looking lively. Pantilimon did magnificently to parry Oscar's shot after the Brazilian had ambled through the majestically indifferent Sunderland line, while Diego Costa had a chance similar to Pedro's that buzzed, somewhat implausibly, over the crossbar.
While the forwards busied themselves in forging chance after chance, the defence put in perhaps their best half of the season. Yes, they were aided by the fact that Sunderland's attacking strategy was something like 'punt the ball upfield and pray', but that doesn't take away from the fact that the visitors were completely shut down, with only a Duncan Watmore snapshot -- never a threat -- to show for their efforts going into halftime.
Sam Allardyce shuffled things around considerably at the interval, as you might expect from a manager who's seen his team get utterly crushed for 45 minutes. But any real hope of a Sunderland comeback was extinguished quickly after halftime.
Despite their reputation, Chelsea's counterattacking game has not been particularly strong of late. And frankly, their attempt to break down down the left wasn't markedly better than average. Pedro worked the ball smartly to Willian, but not smartly enough to send him clear, and our old friend Patrick van Aanholt was on hand to clean up the mess.
Or should have been, at any rate. In what appeared to be a triumph of sheer bloody-mindedness (possibly lion's blood), Willian emerged from the challenge with the ball and with van Aanholt dumped unceremoniously on the ground. Pantilimon attempted a desperate block, but only succeeded in producing a clumsy shove which gave Mr. East little option but to point to the spot. Oscar produced a classic Eden Hazard penalty to make it 3-0.
Fans didn't have much time to bask in the hitherto unknown territory of a three-goal Premier League lead before some scruffy play brought us a little closer to earth. Nemanja Matic had been little short of imperious in the first half but he struggled a little in the second, and his bad giveaway forced Oscar into conceding a dangerous free kick deep in the Chelsea half. A breakdown in marking gave Kaboul a free header at the far post, and Thibaut Courtois could only parry the goalbound effort straight into Fabio Borini, who bundled in from close range.
Sunderland found themselves back in a match they hadn't even noticed they were playing, and the Blues seemed a little flustered by being pegged back. In truth, most of the chances conceded in the second half were self inflicted -- a botched clearance from Kurt Zouma set up Jermain Defoe to blaze into the side netting, while another Matic mistake late on was redeemed by an outstanding save from Courtois.
John Obi Mikel was brought on to solidify the midfield, and after his introduction the game looked a little more secure. Indeed it was a surprise that the Blues didn't score again. They certainly had their fair share of chances, with Oscar curling just wide from outside the box and substitute Loïc Rémy finding himself stopped once by Pantilimon and once by the laws of physics. But 3-1 was plenty; asking for more would have been downright rude.
Three points and an emphatic win are what we needed to see from this Chelsea side. Nobody's going to deny that we're still in a stretch of thoroughly unpleasant territory, but the scenery is more palatable when the team plays like this. Let's keep going.