For all of the tough matches and relatively close shaves over this ten-game run, this is the nearest Chelsea came to dropping points, in injury time at the Stadium of Light. Considering our frequently-unfortunate record against Sunderland over the years, that should surprise absolutely nobody.
The Black Cats have done some appalling things to us over the years. A 3-0 loss at Stamford Bridge under Carlo Ancelotti was bad enough, but they were also responsible for ending our bid for the title in 2014, and have been genuine irritants both before and since. I personally have lost toes to the Northeastern winter while watching Chelsea get done by this roving parade of annoyance, and I think it would be better for all concerned if we never had to play against them ever again.
The weight of all that narrative was not quite enough to overcome Antonio Conte’s merry steamroller, whose path to a 1-0 win would have been described as ‘routine’ if not for a crucial injury-time intervention from Thibaut Courtois.
After seeing the Blues largely stymied by West Bromwich Albion over the weekend, Conte would probably have been a little alarmed to be without Eden Hazard’s services for this match. Sunderland, obviously, were planning on sitting back and absorbing as much pressure as they could get away with. The fear would have been a repeat of the Baggies’ antics at the Bridge, only without the Gareth McAuley mistake.
That fear was unfounded, largely because Sunderland are crap. Where West Brom limited the fullbacks, Adnan Januzaj gave Marcos Alonso the freedom of the left, and it took some pretty awkward work from the Chelsea forwards to fail to turn his crosses into a goal. There was space around ours hosts’ box, and the Blues were finding it. That no big chances presented themselves for most of the first half seemed mostly a matter of luck.
That chance was bound to come eventually, and it finally arrived 40 minutes in. N’Golo Kante won the ball in midfield, leaving Sunderland dangerously unbalanced, and he took advantage of their staggered line by pushing the ball forward up to Cesc Fabregas. Willian was free on the right, but rather than taking a pass and driving to goal, he opted to lay it back off to Fabregas, who curled a perfect 20-yard shot into the bottom corner.
Sunderland didn’t look capable of doing much in response, but David Luiz handed them a glorious chance to equalise just after the break, misplaying an easy diagonal and allowing Jermain Defoe and Januzaj to break forward. The latter wriggled free on the left side of the box, and it took a smart toe-stop from Courtois to keep Chelsea in front.
That moment aside, the Blues were in total control, and chances began raining down on Jordan Pickford’s goal. None of them went in, somehow. Willian somehow hit the crossbar via a deflection and a fine save, Costa was denied at the near post, and Chelsea saw a bunch of other chances go begging.
And even though Sunderland are pretty awful, failing to kill off a game and build a nice cushion is a dangerous thing. The lack of a killer instinct has made a few matches more tense than they should have been, and that was the case at the Stadium of Light as well. What should have been a relaxing final half hour or so instead became an exercise in closing out a match, with Nemanja Matic, Nathaniel Chalobah and finally Branislav Ivanovic all introduced to keep the hosts at bay.
None of them managed to. Sunderland did everything they needed to grab the equaliser, creating chaos from a last-gasp set piece and seeing the ball pop free to former Chelsea man Patrick van Aanholt. He too did everything right, avoiding a challenge from Chalobah and freeing himself up for a shot from the top of the box.
The shot itself was a rocket, bending away from Courtois and towards the top corner. Van Aanholt wheeled away to celebrate, convinced he’d found the equaliser and ended the Blues’ winning run at nine games. He hadn’t, because Thibaut Courtois produced a moment of magic.
Throughout this incredible spell, the outfield players have had their share of signature moments. Hazard and Pedro merrily dissecting Everton, Kante’s goal against United, Diego Costa’s pretty-much-everything, Fabregas’s passing against City. But Courtois has been a bystander, left watching his defence in awe as they’ve kept the opposition at arms length for months at a time. This, then, was the moment for him, a chance to dispel a year of doubts and questions about his ability and commitment. He took it.