Sunderland 1 Chelsea 3
Fernando Torres handed Rafael Benitez a first Barclays Premier League victory as Chelsea manager as he ended his personal drought in style at Sunderland.
The Spaniard capped a powerful start for the Blues by firing them into an 11th-minute lead – scoring his first league goal since October 6 – and he made it 2-0 in first-half stoppage time by converting a penalty awarded for Sebastian Larsson’s trip on Ramires.
Only the woodwork prevented him from completing a hat-trick inside 49 minutes, but Juan Mata rifled in the loose ball to end the game as a contest.
Sunderland responded and England international Adam Johnson embarrassed keeper Petr Cech with a 66th-minute shot he really should have repelled, with Craig Gardner hitting the bar at the death.
However, as a crowd of 39,273 left the Stadium of Light, it was those heading south who were wearing the smiles, leaving those closer to home to contemplate a run which now extends to just two Premier League victories in 23 attempts.
Chelsea will now turn their attention to Japan and the FIFA Club World Cup, while Black Cats boss Martin O’Neill will attempt to take the positives from another difficult afternoon as he attempts to quell a growing tide of pessimism on Wearside.
In truth, the visitors could have had the game won inside the opening 11 minutes as they hit Sunderland with a whirlwind to spark mass panic.
Referee Mark Halsey proved a central character and had he seen what television replays later revealed, he might have endeared himself even less to the locals.
There were just two minutes on the clock when Eden Hazard ran on to Mata’s stunning pass but just as he prepared to shoot, he had his arm tugged by the covering Larsson.
It was enough to throw the striker off balance and keeper Simon Mignolet took advantage to smother the ball with Halsey allowing play to continue and sparing Larsson an inevitable red card, much to the annoyance of the Belgian.
Hazard returned the favour two minutes later to allow Mata to fire across the six-yard box, where Torres only just failed to connect, and Mignolet had to be at his best to deny the Spain international with six minutes gone when skipper John O’Shea headed a clearance straight at team-mate Carlos Cuellar and saw the ball ricochet straight to the striker.
But having ridden their luck during the early stages, the Black Cats finally succumbed with 11 minutes played when, after Cuellar had rashly attempted to nick the ball ahead of Torres on the halfway line and failed, the visitors broke at pace.
Victor Moses raced away before picking out Hazard wide on the left, and when he crossed to the near post, Torres arrived right on cue to turn it into the net.
Defender David Luiz sent a long-range 16th-minute free-kick just over the bar, but as Chelsea relaxed, Sunderland re-grouped and started to force their way back into the game.
Cuellar saw a 23rd-minute shot blocked after the Blues had failed to deal properly with Larsson’s corner, and Cech was called upon for the first time five minutes later to beat away Stephane Sessegnon’s well-struck effort after Connor Wickham, deputising for the injured Steven Fletcher, had held off Luiz to flick on.
With Gardner and Johnson starting to make an impression, the Blues were forced on to the back foot at times and although they tried to hit their hosts on the counter, O’Neill’s men were starting to dominate.
However, disaster struck deep into injury time when Sweden international Larsson decided not to shepherd Brazilian into touch, instead needlessly going to ground and taking the Chelsea man with him.
Halsey pointed straight to the spot, guaranteeing himself a chorus of boos at the break, and Torres obliged from 12 yards.
Any hopes of a fightback were dashed within four minutes of the restart when Phil Bardsley miscontrolled a cross and the ball ran to Torres, who was denied a hat-trick by the crossbar.
Sadly for Sunderland, the rebound dropped invitingly for Mata to make it 3-0 and wrap up the victory with 41 minutes still to play.
It could have been four three minutes later when Mata rolled the ball into the path of Moses, who drilled a right-foot effort wide of the far post.
Chelsea eased into cruise control with the points in the bag, although Johnson gave Sunderland hope with a rasping 66th-minute strike which keeper Cech appeared to leave, only to see it scream inside the far post.
Cech was much more accomplished in dealing with Johnson’s goal-bound free-kick 10 minutes later and had to dive full-length to turn away Wickham’s injury-time effort, but he needed the help off the crossbar to keep out Gardner’s free-kick at the death.