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Apr 222014
Screenshot 2014 04 22 22.02.28 Chelsea Pay The Price of Looking Too Far Ahead

Jozy Altidore implores referee Mike Dean to make a decision while César Azpilicueta pleads his innocence.


In football there have been, there are and there will always be matches which baffle the mind of the viewer – minnows beating giants, teams losing matches to opponents they should easily outclass and outmatch, players clearly displaying their frustrations and disbelief at not being able to impose their style of play –  and none more utterly inconceivable than the worst team in the league beating the second best team in the league.  Even more incredible would be if the worst team in the league had, in their previous match, tied – and almost beaten – the third best team in the league.  Teams who, on paper, they should be losing to, handily.  But that is the magic of football is it not?

Sunderland, fighting for their lives at the very bottom of the Premier League table, have managed to earn an impressive 4 points from their last two matches – matches against 3rd place Manchester City and 2nd place Chelsea – and have done so away from home.  Manchester City have a more than respectable home record, and everyone knows how long Chelsea had maintained José Mourinho’s untainted defense of Stamford Bridge.  Sunderland did not seem the least bit concerned about either of those daunting stats, as they managed to score 2 goals at both the Etihad and at Stamford Bridge.  But how did they do it?

Credit is due to Gus Poyet’s team selection and pre-match preparation – the Black Cats did not travel to West London with the intention of parking the bus and hoping for the best.  In fact, their 4-1-4-1 (often an inverted 4-3-3) formation worked quite well when they advanced, with Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson straddling the pivot of Nemanja Matic and Ramires.  Either player, and sometimes both, were tasked with providing a lateral outlet from pressure.  Lee Cattermole, arguably Sunderland’s weakest player, occupied a position slightly farther upfield than his midfield counterparts, limiting his defensive contributions, which worked quite well for Sunderland.  Larsson was so effective because of his work-rate, as he worked to occupy spaces normally exploited by Chelsea’s creative wing players. This positioning kept Sunderland’s central midfielders from being an all-out attacking threat, but it provided a screen for Emanuele Giaccherini, Adam Johnson, Connor Wickham and Fabio Borini.  While Johnson was generally ineffective, greatly diminishing the bite of Sunderland’s attack, Wickham and Giaccherini did a good job of pestering Chelsea’s defenders, minimizing their time on the ball.  Wickham and Giaccherini were generally anonymous throughout, despite the former scoring the equalizing goal after a helpful spilled rebound by Chelsea’s backup goalie Mark Schwarzer.  Equally helpful for Sunderland was Borini’s tireless work up top.  His touches were sparse, but he was lively and looked a real threat when he was on the ball.  Contrary to the lackluster form of American forward Jozy Altidore, Liverpool loanee Borini has been getting the nod regularly from manager Poyet, and has scored some very important goals for the team.  None have been more important than the 81st minute penalty he scored against Chelsea - essentially ending the Blues title chances and keeping alive Sunderland’s hopes of remaining in the Premiership, for at least another week.

Screenshot 2014 04 22 21.57.07 Chelsea Pay The Price of Looking Too Far Ahead

Connor Wickham watches his equalizing goal go in over an outstretched Mark Schwarzer.

But it was not simply the effort and strategy of Gus Poyet’s Black Cats that helped them to win the day.  Chelsea’s team selection and in-game attitude made it clear that this match was not the priority for the West Londoners.  Looming on the horizon was Chelsea’s midweek Champions League fixture away to a well-managed and inspired Atletico Madrid side.  Coming off of a commanding win against Barcelona, Diego Simeone’s squad are surely something to be feared.  José Mourinho, no stranger to the Champions League semi-finals, has clearly prioritized the competition in which Chelsea are “genuine” contenders.

José chose to start Mohamed Salah in place of the in-form Andre Schürrle, who has stepped up his game in Eden Hazard’s absence.  He also decided to start Ramires in a holding midfield pivot with Matic – providing an effective defensive shield in front of the back four, but stifling Chelsea’s creativity going forward.  Willian and Oscar were Chelsea’s most effective attacking threats, looking dangerous whenever they were on the ball – between them they created 12 chances, and were at the center of almost every foray forward.  However, Oscar was substituted for Demba Ba after just an hour.  From then on, Chelsea never really looked like scoring.  Ba was poor, scuffing a chance late on to equalize, and seemingly unable to find his feet.  Equally poor was Fernando Torres, who replaced Chelsea’s goalscorer Samuel Eto’o with 15 minutes to play.  Torres also had a late opportunity to threaten the Sunderland goal, but failed to convert with what looked to be an easy header.

As much as Chelsea should have simply “outplayed a weaker opponent” it was their attitude that did them in.  Despite going ahead early on, Chelsea’s lead lasted just six minutes.  Like the Etihad Stadium during Sunderland’s visit to Manchester for their midweek match, Stamford Bridge had a palpable nerviness about it – an atmosphere which lasted right up until Sunderland took the lead through Borini’s penalty.  The nerves were a product of the players’ response to the events in the match.  When Sunderland equalized, Chelsea players were finger pointing, looking accusingly at each other to determine who was at fault.  Instead, they should have picked their heads up, rallied together and played their game.  A collective belief in the team strategy and a legitimate effort from the team could have made all the differnce.  Instead, when César Azpilicueta committed the controversial foul on Jozy Altidore that set up Fabio Borini’s penalty, the Blues hung their heads in defeat.  Gone was the spark Chelsea players had in their eyes during the Champions League quarterfinal match against PSG.  For the remainder of the match, the home side hit hopeful long balls, praying to see one of their players latch onto it and score.  But it was not to be.  Sunderland players defended like madmen, repelling aimless attack after aimless attack.  As the final minutes ticked off the clock, there was a sense of inevitability about the result.  A memorable comeback was not forthcoming, and everybody – Chelsea players and fans included - knew it.

Screenshot 2014 04 22 21.57.17 Chelsea Pay The Price of Looking Too Far Ahead

César Azpilicueta slides in front of Jozy Altidore who slips and earns a penalty in the 81st minute.

This is by no means to say that Sunderland won the game solely because of Chelsea’s failure to take them seriously.  In football, any team can beat any other team, on any given day.  Even at young ages, coaches warn their players to never underestimate a team, regardless of how good (or bad) you may think they are.  It would appear that professional players (and sometimes, coaches) need also to be reminded of this, from time to time.

Chelsea’s next Premier League fixture is this Sunday away to Liverpool, in what can only be described as a must-win match.  The Blues’ title hopes are greatly diminished after their loss to Sunderland, as they depend too much on the results of other teams.  Regardless, if they wish to have any chance at challenging for the title, they must aim to win all of their remaining matches.


Senegalese-American journalism student. Fan of political science & international relations. Strong passion for writing about and playing the beautiful game. Bilingual. Recovering Drogbaholic. Licensed Youth Coach. I call it football, futbol and soccer. Follow me on twitter: More of my writings:

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