When it comes to his support of Martin O’Neill, Ellis Short’s patience can be measured in matches. At the moment, it’s nine. How far the increasingly beleaguered Sunderland manager makes it into double figures is likely to depend on two of their next three games.
Rather like this all-too predictable defeat, the trip to Manchester United on Saturday is a free fixture, where the aim will be to avoid a nightmare rather than holding any realistic hope of reward.
However, the arrival of Reading at the Stadium of Light tomorrow night, allied to the trek to Southampton three days before Christmas, are different beasts entirely. Defeats against sides in their immediate vicinity in the table would spell disaster. Losing at Old Trafford is forgivable.
O’Neill bristled at the use of unflattering statistics that happen to span seasons, yet recently was keen to compare his record over the last 12 months with previous Sunderland managers, due to it casting him in a more favourable light. He can’t have it both ways.
Incurring the wrath of the Irishman then, it’s two wins in the last 23 league games. Startlingly, Sunderland have not managed to beat a top flight side who have kept 11 players on the field since March. A little over a year ago, Steve Bruce was shown the door following two wins from 14 matches. At this rate, O’Neill is nine games overdrawn on the patience of Short. Stretching it much into double figures is dangerous territory.
Call it symmetry, but a year on from his arrival, Sunderland are where O’Neill found them: in the bottom three.
“It’s important that everyone sticks together,” he insisted. “We were in the bottom three this time last year, so winning Tuesday’s game, regardless of how we do it, is the most important thing.”
Short was nothing if not concise in his programme notes regarding Sunderland’s troubles: “In this column, I’m not going to dwell on the football. We all know we should be higher up the table.”
In mitigation, O’Neill clearly retains the players’ faith, and they showed signs of life against a Chelsea side who today arrive at the World Club Cup in Japan after delivering a first Premier League victory in four attempts for interim manager Rafa Benitez and ending a trough in top flight results they haven’t endured for 18 years.
Despite the endeavour of the hosts, there was no way back following two first-half goals confidently dispatched by Fernando Torres who, whisper it gently for fear of ridicule, is starting to prosper under Benitez. It’s 11 for the season now.
An instinctive early volley allied to his first Premier League penalty gave the visitors a stranglehold they weren’t to relinquish to record a 15th victory in the last 16 attempts against these opponents. Juan Mata followed up to make it three early in the second half after a Torres effort struck the bar, a result of more woeful defending from the hosts, who will be as profligate tomorrow night at their peril.
For Chelsea, the fillip was immediate. Alex Ferguson may have the title down to a two-horse race, but Benitez said: “Remember last year that in January everyone said Manchester City would win the title easily. Yet on the last day they had to score in the last minute to win it.
“If we play at this level and at this intensity we’ll win games and hopefully we’ll be up there. I think our odds will be reduced now. Someone told me they were 16-1 before the game. Maybe they’re around 5-1 now.”
Sunderland must now focus on Reading, one of their more important games in recent seasons, and Adam Johnson, who drove home a late consolation appeared happy to employ the head in sand approach to the current predicament.
“If we win a couple of games we’re out of the drop zone,” the England international insisted. “It’s too early to say we’re in a relegation battle.”
Actually, it isn’t and they are.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-1-1): Mignolet 5; Bardsley 3 (Colback 66, 5), O’Shea 4, Cuellar 4, Rose 7; Johnson 6, Larsson 4 (Saha 80, 5), Gardner 6, McClean 3; Sessegnon 5; Wickham 5.
CHELSEA (4-3-3): Cech 6; Ivanovic 6, Cahill 6, Luiz 6, Cole 6; Ramires 7, Hazard 7 (Lampard 79, 6), Romeu 6 (Oscar 20, 6); Mata 8, Torres 9, Moses 6 (Bertrand 62, 6).
Referee: Mark Halsey 7.