Sunderland couldn’t quite put the Black Cats among the pigeons in the title race by defeating Chelsea, who emerged from this stalemate still top of the Premier League table, unbeaten and still on course to be ‘Invincible’ this season.
But the hosts did, with great resilience, show that the London club are not unstoppable, and in doing so gave a glimmer of hope to challengers that the season isn’t blue all over just yet.
Sunderland’s manager Gus Poyet pulled no punches in his programme notes about the disparity in quality between the teams.‘Everybody knows that Chelsea are better than us technically, physically and mentally,’ he wrote.
He added that ‘you need to compensate for that with the team performance’ and he knows what he is talking about. Sunderland beat Mourinho’s Chelsea in the clubs’ last two meetings.
They inflicted Chelsea’s last defeat upon them, at Stamford Bridge in the league in April, and Sunderland also won the meeting before, a home game in the league cup last December.
Poyet made one change to the XI who drew 0-0 at Leicester last week, with Jack Rodwell returning to the midfield in place of Jordi Gomez, who dropped to the bench.
Jose Mourinho started with a team unchanged from the one that beat West Brom last weekend, spearheaded by Diego Costa, fit after a knock sustained in the 5-0 Champions League thrashing of Schalke in midweek.
The visitors poured forward from the first whistle and it was clear that Poyet’s game plan was rooted in containment and counter-attacks when possible.
The first six minutes exemplified this with Chelsea pressure then a break ending in Seb Larsson setting up Connor Wickham, whose shot was blocked.
Cue the next period of pressure, with the three-man line of Willian, Oscar and Eden Harzard playing behind Costa and revolving their chances. A Willian cross came pinging in. Santiago Vergini side-footed it out. Hazard shot, over the bar. Oscar crossed, low and to the centre; Sunderland cleared.
Oscar shot low from the D, the ball deflected and Costel Pantilimon dived to save. Costa ran the ball into the box, and worked it Willian, whose right-footed shot from yards hit the left post.
Occasionally Sunderland got away, Wickham smacking over the bar, Rodwell shooting from distance. And then the blue waves came again.
The sturdy home defending should not have been such a shock. Take away the 8-0 drubbing by Southampton and before yesterday Sunderland had conceded just 11 goals, the second-lowest tally in the division
Sunderland’s Anthony Reveillere (left) vies for the ball with Chelsea’s Willian during the first half at the Stadium of Light
John O’Shea’s perfectly timed tackle on Costa to cut off the clear and present danger from a beautiful through ball from Cesc Fabregas was symbolic of the defiance, and application.
Again Chelsea pressed, as the best sides do. The pre-match talk was about whether Chelsea can be invincible all season, as only Preston in 1888-89 and Arsenal in 2003-04 have ever been in England’s top division. They certainly have match-winners in all areas.
Nemanja Matic surged forward, one shot blocked and then one missed. Then Hazard, Oscar and Costa all had shots blocked. As the intensity of the occasion reached the sidelines, referee Kevin Friend sent Poyet’s assistant Mauricio Taricco to the stands. Played resumed with Chelsea right-back Ivanovic having a shot blocked by Pantilimon. And then Sunderland came the closest either side came to scoring in the first half.
Lee Cattermole fed Vergini, whose chip from inside the area clipped the bar and tipped over the top. With the home fans urging them on, Sunderland pushed on again.
The longer that Chelsea went without scoring, the more Costa became frustrated – and tetchy. Late in the first half after a tangle with O’Shea, he kicked out. That he missed his target is irrelevant and he was fortunate not to be booked.
He did get a yellow card in the 10th minute of the second half, for knocking Wes Brown in the face with his trailing arm while jumping. The volume of complaints from the Sunderland fans made it clear they wanted the Spaniard to see red – and it was certainly debatable whether he should still be on the pitch
The chances continued to be created by Chelsea – and thwarted. Hazard: blocked. Fabregas: saved. Costa: blocked.
Poyet then made a double substitution to inject fresh legs into a team undertstanably tiring, Jozy Altidore replacing Steve Fletcher and Gomez on for Rodwell. Sunderland pushed forward now, Wickham’s powerful shot in the 72nd minute testing Thibaut Courtois.
Altidore also proved a handful, running at Chelsea late on, and having a shot deflected into Adam Johnson’s path with six minutes left. Johnson could only hit his own effort wide.