Sunderland 0 Chelsea 1: Chelsea’s 10th successive win was predictable in a game against the Premier League’s bottom club, but few anticipated that Antonio Conte’s team would experience such a nervous 90 minutes before retaining the leadership.
The outcome should not have been in doubt once Chelsea broke Sunderland’s stubborn resistance five minute from the interval with a well-crafted goal from Cesc Fabregas because, even before the game, the odds were stacked in the London club’s favour.
Instead, Sunderland almost claimed an equaliser at the start of the second-half and, after emerging from a brief Chelsea onslaught, showed admirable spirit to pin back Conte’s team in the closing stages which featured a remarkable save by Thibaut Courtois to preserve the three points.
It was not meant to be like this since the pointers were obvious in an encounter between two teams separated by the length of the league: Chelsea had won their last nine league games, while Sunderland ‘s latest outing was a 3-0 defeat at Swansea and Chelsea already possessed nine clean sheets, Sunderland had managed just one in their previous 16 matches.
And, most significantly, injuries had left Sunderland with a largely inexperienced bench, while an injury to £35 million midfielder Eden Hazard meant a call up for Willian - another £35 million man.
Conte made one other change, an unenforced one as he selected Fabregas ahead of Nemanja Matic.
Fabregas and Willian are class acts, but Hazard has been outstanding this season, a key element in Chelsea’s progress, and he was missed as they struggled to impose themselves on the game in the early stages.
They were stifled by Sunderland’s three-man defence which was augmented for much of the game by wing-backs Billy Jones and Patrick Van Aanholt, whose opportunities to link up their attack were rare.
Jones had managed just one foray forward and finished with an off-target effort by the time Sunderland produced the first hint of a breakthrough through Adnan Januzaj in the 25th minute as he took advantage of space in front of Chelsea’s three central defenders to progress to the edge of the area before curling a shot wide of an inviting gap at the far post.
Chelsea’s response was immediate as Diego Costa met a cross but failed to produce his recent finishing touch as he sliced it horribly wide, but it was indicative of the way the league leaders were beginning to take charge.
Their mounting midfield authority opened up Sunderland in the 34th minute when the fact that Pedro was offside should not detract from the excellent of the save from keeper Jordan Pickford, who also dealt comfortably with David Luiz’s 39th minute free-kick that deflected off the wall.
The opening goal soon materialised as Sunderland once again failed to keep that elusive clean sheet - and it was the result of a slick link-up between the two men brought in by Conte. Fabregas started the move with a pass to Willian and finished it with a decisive shot after the ball was quickly returned to him just outside the area.
Willian was also inches wide with a free-kick in the dying seconds of the half to underline that was a long way back for Sunderland, scorers of only ten goals in seven home games this season.
They nearly had an 11th, however, only 82 seconds after the restart. Jermain Defoe, one of their three players who have been on target, was inevitably, but as a creator of the opportunity, playing in Januzaj for a shot that was well saved by Courtois’s outstretched left leg.
It was a reminder to Chelsea that they needed the comforting cushion of a second goal and they went close to claiming it on several occasions in the next ten minutes, starting with an off-target effort from Victor Moses.
Willian’s increasing influence on the game was reflected in his 52nd minute shot was struck the bar with Pickford beaten after deflecting off a defender. Then Costa was frustrated twice in quick succession as a shot was turned away by Pickford and his sluggish break forward enabled Lamine Kone to deprive him of another chance.
The closing stages belonged to Sunderland and they almost deprived Chelsea of their win when Courtois saved superbly in stoppage time from Patrick Van Aanholt. Chelsea could not have complained if it had gone in.
Pickford 7; Kone 7, O’Shea 6, Djilobodji 6; Jones 5 (Love 59,5), Denayer 5, Kirchhoff 5 (Larsson 57,5), Van Aanholt 6; Januzaj 6, Defoe 5, Borini 5 (Khazri 82,5) Subs not used: Mannone, Asoro, Maja, Honeyman.
Courtois 8; Azpilicueta 6, Luiz 6, Cahill 6; Moses 5 (Ivanovic 90,5), Kante 6, Fabregas 7, Alonso 7; Willian 8 (Chalobah 89,5), Diego Costa 5, Pedro 5 (Matic 76,5) Subs not used: Begovic, Zouma, Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi.
Neil Swarbrick 7
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