Wickham Man Burns Chelsea's Title Bridges
By Gerry Smith
It was inevitable in the end. A run of just two points in thirty games, form that which meant the sack for their predecessor. Visiting the club whose manager had never lost a home game in the English Premier League. It simply couldn't be anything else other than a Sunderland win at Chelsea.
As they travelled down from the North East, the loyal supporters of the EPL's bottom, and apparently doomed, club travelled with some hope but no expectation. Their big chance, at the Etihad on Wednesday, had come and gone. That elusive win against a major player in the title stakes, to kick start a late desperate fight against the formality of relegation, had passed Sunderland by.
Chelsea had every reason to believe Stamford Bridge would become the Black Cats burial ground. Mourinho had won 61 and drawn 16 of his 77 league games in charge there. Lessons about complacency would surely have been learnt from rivals Manchester City's slip-up midweek against today's opponents.
Opposite number Gus Poyet, however, had cause to believe, in spite of the recent horrendous form. Chelsea had been dispatched in their remarkable League Cup run, and of the 26 points Sunderland had accrued, all bar eight had been earned against top half opposition. Much like the Black Cat contingent in the crowd, too, he and the squad had no expectations. They could just have a go and whatever happens, happens, as Bob Stokoe famously said the eve before their last major trophy win.
If 41 years is a long time since success, the awaiting hour or so, on a clear, bright Spring early evening in West London, was looking to be an eternity of darkness when Chelsea took the lead with just 12 minutes on the clock. Willian's corner on the left was met by Samuel Eto'o, who held off a weak challenge to side foot volley the ball home from inside the six yard box.
Stamford Bridge relaxed visibly. The vast, vast majority of the 41,00 cheered and applauded politely, knowing that vital early goal would calm the nerves. Even the visiting players and fans tensions eased a little. The bullet had been fired early. They really did have nothing to lose now. Sunderland came forward and in the 18th minute earned a corner on the left of their own.
One lesson Chelsea clearly didn't learn, however, was how creative Sunderland are at set pieces. Instead of firing it in to the six yard box, it was played to the unmarked Marcos Alonso, in yards of space of the edge of the area. His fierce shot could only be parried away by Mark Schwarzer and Connor Wickham pounced on the rebound before John Terry could react and bundled home an unlikely equaliser.
For the still young Wickham, barely out of his teens, it's been a breakthrough week. It's now been three goals in the past two games for the summer 2011 £8m signing from Ipswich, both against title chasers. And now the only player to score on both Manchester City's and Chelsea's grounds this season. That's some accolade.
With the Black Cats supporters chants ringing around the stadium, Chelsea knew they were now in a game and set about their task with more urgency. Just after the half hour mark, a John Terry volley home was chalked off for a Matic foul on the solid Jack Colback, although at the time it merely seemed he'd been the stronger of the two players.
Soon afterwards Vito Mannone produced a wonder save in the Sunderland goal, somehow turning an Ivanovic header onto the bar from another well executed corner. The ex Arsenal shot stopper also saved well from Matic and Mohamed Salah before some real controversy just before the break.
There were half hearted appeals against Marcos Alonso for handball, which looked far more like ball to hand. It would have been harsh had it been given. Moments later another appeal was dismissed out of hand when the industrious Seb Larsson collided with Ramires when clearing what seemed to be an empty net gaping for the Brazilian
Soon afterwards the Swedish international had a little tap at Ramires foot, incensing the Chelsea player to such an extent that he clearly, if meekly, elbowed him. Again, Mike Dean waved play on, even though it happened right in front of him. Retrospective action, however, against the Brazilian looks certain.
Chelsea were clearly rattled, even though Eto'o curled a low shot narrowly wide of the right far post, after some neat work from the impressive Willian. Sunderland defended confidently, were tactically astute, and providing a potent, if rare, threat up front. The tension could be felt all around Stamford Bridge - bar the Sunderland supporters section, where the feeling was 'We just might, we just might ...'
The hopes turned to groans when goal hero Wickham was replaced by the much maligned Jozy Altidore. A player clearly bereft of confidence, with huge question marks over his Premier League credentials after an earlier unremarkable stint at Hull, people's reactions to his performances so far have ranged from outrage to sympathy, especially as away from the pitch Jozy comes across as a decent model professional, something acknowledged by even his fiercest Stadium of Light critics.
In the meantime, Chelsea's subs of their own Fernando Torres and Demba Ba, tried to test Vito Mannone's resilience without ever looking likely to. Ba, in particular, shot horribly wide when given a clear shot at goal, as we went into the last quarter of an hour. In the dugouts, Mourinho was becoming more stony faced, and Gus Poyet more animated, as both realised that the unthinkable was becoming uppermost in everyone's thoughts.
With eight minutes left, Sunderland turned that thought into reality. Out wide on the Chelsea left, Cesar Azpilicueta slipped horribly near his own penalty, leaving - of all people - Jozy Altidore clean through. The defender tried to make amends by scampering back, but only compounded his folly by wiping the American's left foot from under him. Not much in the way of contact but a stonewall penalty.
Who else could it be that took it? He proved he was the coolest man on the pitch from the penalty spot when laughing in the faces of Newcastle provocation in a red hot derby atmosphere. Now the on-loan Liverpool striker hit the ball cleanly and into the back of the Chelsea net to send the thousands of Sunderland fans in a little corner of Stamford Bridge, and millions of Liverpool supporters globally, into raptures. If the relegation battle was blown wide up again, it seems the title race was being almost sewn up - thanks to Sunderland's last two performances.
Soon after the winner came yet more controversy. Chelsea assistant Rui Faria, remaining silent while Mourinho laughed at the penalty decision, could contain himself no longer when the title contenders fell behind to the basement club. His shouts and screams at Mike Dean inevitably led to him being red-carded to the stands, being have to be physically removed. It was excruciating, embarrassing and yet funny all at once to watch a grown man behave so childishly.
As Chelsea inevitably went forward, looking more forlorn by the second, home sub Andre Schurrle tried a shot from 30 yards just after the resumption, which Mannone did well to tip over the bar. Other than that, Sunderland saw out the game comfortably. The perceived dark evening ahead had been lit up, in yet another twist and turn, from the Stadium of Light side.
If Faria's actions were an embarrassment during the game, Mourinho's comments post match were beyond ridicule, sarcastically praising Mike Dean and Referees Association boss Mike Riley, conveniently ignoring the awful defending for Sunderland's first goal and the fact the winning strike was from a stonewall penalty. If anything, Sunderland had more to complain about with Ramires staying on the pitch after elbowing Seb Larsson.
Not that Gus Poyet - or Liverpool - will give a jot. You can whinge, cry, shout, and stamp your feet all you like, goals win games. Sunderland scored them, therefore they won the game. If there is any blame, perhaps Mourinho might contemplate how Poyet out thought him tactically at set pieces, or how his Chelsea side faded the longer the game went against the bottom side, who had played a tough game at Eastlands less than three days previously.
The last word belongs to ex Chelsea man, the victorious boss Poyet. "I think the key games are against Cardiff and West Brom at home. Of course, we go to Manchester United, and anything can happen."
Like knocking them out of the League Cup earlier this year. Like ending Jose's Chelsea home run today too. Gus has never said a truer word in his life.
Which is why both Wearside and Merseyside are celebrating this evening.
Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2