This was an exciting but ultimately fruitless visit to the capital where Sunderland matched the home team on all fronts except on the most crucial one, taking our chances.
Nicklas Bendtner returned to the Black Cats’ squad at Chelsea, after a knee injury which kept him out of the FA Cup win at Peterborough. Fellow front man Fraizer Campbell is close to full fitness and available for the first time since August 2010 after recovering from two serious knee injuries. Jack Colback, Wes Brown, Titus Bramble and Craig Gordon remain on the casualty list. The visitors’ line-up was 22 Mignolet, 02 Bardsley, 11 Richardson (Wickham 80), 12 Kilgallon (Turner 45+1), 16 O'Shea, 06 Cattermole, 07 Larsson, 15 Vaughan (Gardner 69), 23 McClean, 28 Sessegnon, 52 Bendtner. Subs were 20 Westwood, 04 Turner, 08 Gardner, 18 Meyler, 27 Elmohamady, 10 Wickham, 17 Ji Dong-Won.
Florent Malouda dropped to the bench for Chelsea, as he did not train on Wednesday or Thursday. Daniel Sturridge and John Terry were both passed fit but the game came too soon for Michael Essien, Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel. Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are away on African Nations Cup duty, in the following team: 01 Cech, 03 Cole, 04 David Luiz, 17 Bosingwa, 26 Terry, 06 Romeu, 07 Ramires, 08 Lampard (Essien 73), 16 Meireles, 09 Torres, Mata (Malouda 85).
Sunderland started well with a great run from Sessegnon when set up by Bendtner after just 3 min., and from his cross MacLean missed under pressure when it looked easier to score. 5 min. later a Bendtner run led to a foul and a free kick for Larsson which really tested Cech in the home goal.
The game-changing moment happened in the 13th minute, when Torres met a cross from the right and slammed a superb volley against the bar. The ball bounced down unluckily for the defenders right into the path of Frank Lampard who almost involuntarily diverted it into the goal. I suppose he was in the right place at the right time, and this set the scene for the rest of the game where Sunderland had no luck at all.
It was the sort of game a fan could get paranoid about. We played well, responded superbly to the setback, but just could not make the breakthrough in front of goal. Manager Martin O’Neill summed it up well:
"We had a fantastic second half. We created a number of clear-cut chances and we weren't able to take just one of them. We are wondering how on earth we lost the game. With a bit of composure we could have scored four goals. We had enough chances to have won three games. And we had a clear-cut penalty.
"We played very, very well and it wasn't just a case of just putting a big effort into the game. We played very well, played very nice football. The performance was excellent and we can take some consolation from the fact the fans were screaming for the final whistle."
That whistle came after late missed chances from Gardner and Bendtner and had compounded an earlier foul on the box on Bendtner, which looked very dubious, as well as a traumatic miss from MacLean in the 63rd when it did look easier to score.
I am not saying that Chelsea did not also have chances, and they stuck to their task with determination, but this seemed like a collective off day in front of goal which the team needs to put behind them as soon as possible. We went there and came forward with a lot of commitment in a fearless performance.
Martin O’Neill has made a great start as manager, and he shares the passion of the fans for our wonderful football club, but his only defeats, 0-1 setbacks in the capital, first at Spurs and now in West London, do leave a bad taste in the mouth. However, it is a sign of how well things have gone that we more than matched Chelsea, and that they were fortunate to complete a double over us on Saturday.
I do not think the rising confidence of the team will be affected, though, and more importantly we need to turn the Stadium of Light back into the stronghold it once was.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen
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