Sunderland stand firm against the Chelsea threat

Chelsea are seven points clear of Southampton and nine clear of Manchester City after a hard-fought stalemate, but they were severely tested by a Sunderland side who fought tenaciously and fully deserved their draw.
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas vies with Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher during their English Premier League match at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland, north east England on November 29, 2014. The game finished 0-0. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas vies with Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher during their English Premier League match at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland, north east England on November 29, 2014. The game finished 0-0. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL

SUNDERLAND // Chelsea are seven points clear of Southampton and nine clear of Manchester City after a hard-fought stalemate on Sunday night, but they were severely tested by a Sunderland side who fought tenaciously and fully deserved their draw.

Chelsea, perhaps, will not be too worried at dropping points against opponents who had won their past two games against them, but there were unexpected signs of ­vulnerability.

More than anything, Chelsea seemed surprised by the fury with which Sunderland played in collecting their eighth draw this season.

Read more: Manchester United dominate Hull City from beginning to the end, writes Andy Mitten

Gus Poyet’s side were superbly organised, playing with a splendidly controlled aggression, epitomised by midfielder Lee Cattermole, who made three blocks in the first half that resounded around the stadium.

Chelsea passed and passed and Sunderland stood firm.

Willian had a low shot from outside the box but it was pushed against the post by Costel Pantilimon and the big Romanian made a fine block with his right leg to deny Branislav Ivanovic after neat interplay with Willian.

But Sunderland also offered a threat.

They are not the most incisive side, but striker Connor Wickham had his best game of the season, his constant run troubling right-back Ivanovic, while Santiago Vergini hit the top of the bar with a shot on the turn as Cattermole’s cross was deflected into his path.

Sunderland’s resolution seemed to frustrate Chelsea and Diego Costa should probably have been sent off shortly before half-time after kicking out at John O’Shea when grounded following a hefty challenge from the centre-back.

That he was not even booked proved significant: 11 minutes into the second half, Costa caught Wes Brown with a flailing arm and was cautioned.

He is somebody who plays always on the margins of his temper and the laws, and will rarely come closer to a red card without collecting one.

As it is, he will miss Wednesday’s home game against Tottenham through suspension.

The longer the game went on, the more it seemed possible Sunderland might spring an upset.

They never quite had the sophistication or cutting edge to do so – although substitute forward Jozy Altidore came remarkably close with a mesmerising run as he skipped through defenders, always seeming on the verge of tumbling before finally being blocked out, and Adam Johnson twice shot just wide in the dying ­seconds.

Still, there is no doubt their energy rattled Chelsea and perhaps a template is emerging of how to play them this season.

Manchester United showed this month that if teams get tight to playmaker Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea’s rhythm can be interrupted and, with Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson magnificently tireless, he never had room or space to dictate the tempo of the game.

The lesson is there: this Chelsea are unbeaten, but perhaps not unbeatable.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: November 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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