Chelsea were inspired to a 2-1 victory at Sunderland as captain John Terry and striker Daniel Sturridge struck either side of half-time. The visitors were impressive throughout and a stoppage time Ji-Dong Won goal did little to prove that anyone else but Chelsea were in control of this game. Terry opened the scoring at the Stadium of Light on 18 minutes with what was eventually a simple side-foot from a tight angle. An insightful pass from deadline day signing Raul Meireles gave Sturridge the opportunity to double the lead, obliging with an audacious back-heel that must have had the onlooking Fernando Torres wondering if his stint on the bench might turn into a more permanent fixture. Dong Won’s simple finish in the final moments was scant consolation for the hosts who were insipid and ineffectual throughout.
But the game could well have taken a different course if deadline day signing Nicklas Bendtner had taken the games first chance. Stephane Sessegnon’s trickery drew the foul midway in the Chelsea half, and the subsequent free-kick was delivered beyond a static Blues back-line. The hands went up for offside whilst the Dane had time and plenty of space to compose himself, however his header had no where near enough power to trouble Petr Cech never mind the direction.
Chelsea, surviving the scare, then took the game to the hosts. Juan Mata who was making his first start in a blue shirt after netting his first goal for the club a fortnight ago, was at the heart of Chelsea’s play, looking comfortable in a supporting role to Sturridge. Nicolas Anelka appeared the most likely to break the deadlock, going close on two occasions before the Frenchman won the free-kick that led to the opening goal. Mata played the ball to Anelka on the edge of the area and well aware of the Sunderland defender’s stray leg, fell rather softly over it. If the home fans were incensed by Anelka’s antics, they will be as outraged as Steve Bruce was with his team for failing to clear their lines. The free-kick appeared to break down but the second phase found its way to Terry who was free at the far post and netted with his second attempt through a dense crowd of red and white.
It was no more than the visitors deserved, despite the scrappy nature of the goal and with a one goal cushion Andre Villas-Boas witnessed arguably the best performance of his short reign. Mata continued to dictate play as Chelsea’s star player, with an assured supporting cast of Meireles, Ramires and Frank Lampard. The only fault was that they did not create enough chances to kill the game whilst on top, however with Sunderland barely managing another shot on target the one goal appeared to be enough.
Sessegnon did cause a brief scare just before half-time causing Cech to parry a shot that was more-or-less straight at him, with Branislav Ivanovich taking no risks as he poked the ball out for a corner. Chelsea resumed the second 45′ in much the same fashion as the first ended it: in control and playing the game as they saw fit and just as the iron got hot enough, Chelsea struck.
Meireles floated a delightful ball from inside his own half which the ever-so lively Sturridge raced on to. Black Cat’s keeper Simon Mignolet did his best to deter him from goal and with Wes Brown closing down from behind, it looked like the forward had wasted a glorious opportunity. Alas, with a swift swish of his heel Sturridge defied the two and saw his audacious attempt squeeze past Mignolet and nestle into the net as Brown raced after it in despair.
It was an outrageous and particularly arrogant piece of skill, all the more impressive considering Sturridge’s relative inexperience and unimpressive goal-record for Chelsea. But it was a moment of opportunism that defied his years and will have the entire football community talking. It was also just what Chelsea needed so early in the half acting to compose the visitors even further and deflate the home side to the point of submission.
Florent Malouda was introduced for Sturridge who left to an appreciative applause from the travelling brood and the winger almost made an immediate impact with a half-volley that stung the hands of Mignolet. Bendtner, sensing his frustrated side were not going to carve out too many goal-scoring chances, tried a speculative effort from long range that flew high and wide into the supporters; or rather those supporters still in their seats. Some fans had seen enough for the afternoon and whilst they deservedly had every right to expect more from their team, the remaining minutes showed exactly why you should never leave a game early.
Seb Larsson delivered the ball in and Bendtner flicked the ball on to the unmarked Dong-Won who finished tidily from 10 yards. Nothing more than a consolation and a smudge on the number of clean sheets Cech count at the end of the season, Chelsea were comfortable victors long before Sunderland could repeat. Whilst Sturridge will be hailed a genius for his exquisite finish, and rightly so, Chelsea will be just as happy with the immediate impact of Mata who looks at ease in this league. There is a lot more to do, but it is surely a ‘Mata’ of time before pundits and neutrals are pipping Chelsea as genuine title contenders again.