It was Fabio Borini, who spent two years at Chelsea, who eased the title towards his parent club Liverpool. It was Gus Poyet, the scorer of that majestic scissor kick goal against Sunderland, who masterminded this sensational defeat, almost certainly kicking us out of the title race and kicking Jose Mourinho’s imperious home record of 77 unbeaten into the history books. Wonders never cease.
For Mourinho’s incredible record at Stamford Bridge to be ended one day was widely anticipated, but for it to have been the team at the bottom of the league to do it adds to the sense of regret. We lacked inspiration, penetration and creativity, sinful for a team so full of offensive talent. As Sunderland resisted our conservative, but assertive pressure well, defending stoically, we probed to little effect.
It was a languid performance. Our defence was uncharacteristically insecure, with Mark Schwarzer, covering for the ill Petr Cech, culpable for Connor Wickham’s equalising goal, cancelling out Samuel Eto’o’s opener, and Cesar Azpilicueta conceding a debatable late spot-kick, dispatched by Borini. We missed Eden Hazard – his silky trickery and turn of pace could have helped in opening up this stout Sunderland back-line.
Despite our apathetic start, we were in the ascendency after 12 minutes. Eto’o was alert and nimble, beating John O’Shea to Willian’s corner delivery to finish superbly, volleying home his ninth goal of the season, all registered at home. His celebratory dance forced Mourinho into laughter, but his amusement would be short-lived.
Cech’s omission and Schwarzer’s inclusion was a surprise, with Cech unavailable through a viral infection. Wickham’s equaliser embodied the lacklustre nature of our performance. Marcos Alonso was left unmarked at the edge of the box, and when Schwarzer spilled the Spaniard’s strike, Wickham reacted first to finish calmly. His remarkable renaissance of late continued, netting to score only the second opposition goal at the Bridge in 2014.
Vito Mannone, whose error denied Sunderland three points at Manchester City on Wednesday evening, thwarted Oscar twice, one a speculative strike and the other a well-struck free-kick. Sunderland, and the Italian keeper in particular, resisted the mounting Chelsea pressure well. Branislav Ivanovic’s header crashed against the crossbar. Both Nemanja Matic and Willian were excellently thwarted by Mannone before he rose to block Willian’s effort and O’Shea disrupted Ramires’s header at a gaping goal. Denial of a goal-scoring opportunity? Possibly.
We ramped up the pressure looking for the decisive second goal after the interval. Willian sprung forward and fed Eto’o, whose subsequent curling strike strayed tantalizingly from the goal. We appealed in vain for a penalty for perceived Sunderland shirt-pulling. Oscar’s tamely-struck effort was gathered with relative ease.
Mourinho began to grow more anxious, responding to the introduction of Emmanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore by bringing on Andre Schurrle and the in-form Demba Ba, whose first, and most prominent involvement, was to skew an effort horribly wide.
Sunderland resorted to cynical challenges to keep us at bay, first Lee Cattermole on Oscar and then Wes Brown on Ba, earning the former Manchester United centre-half a merited caution. Then came the decisive moment, with Borini netting from the spot as the game neared its conclusion. We hurried for an equaliser, Schurrle forcing the outstanding Mannone into a wonderful save.
Next season will be ours
The fact that we were, and still are, in contention for the title without a prolific goal-scorer, similar to those of Liverpool or Manchester City, is true testament to Jose’s managerial mastery. Our profligacy this season has been hugely detrimental in our bid for the league crown and if we had the likes of Atletico’s Diego Costa at our disposal, who would be a substantial upgrade on Fernando Torres, maximum points would probably have been secured at Everton, Newcastle, Stoke, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa. Next season will be ours.
Looking on the bright side
Regardless of the disappointment in losing the truly incredible home record set by Jose Mourinho, of 77 games unbeaten, the achievement itself is stellar. A unique record.
Jose must somehow galvanise his players ahead of the trip to the Vincente Calderon stadium. Atletico are excelling in this season’s absorbing La Liga title race, guided by the visionary Diego Simeone. They lead the Spanish league thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of Thibaut Courtois, who will most probably play on Tuesday, the creativity of Koke, so often their architect, and the lethal prowess of Diego Costa, hopefully destined for SW6 this summer.
Yet, despite their undoubted strengths, Atletico were my preferred semi-final opposition. Were we to advance past Simeone’s men, Mourinho is capable of lifting aloft the Champions League in his homeland, with Lisbon being a short drive away from his hometown of Setúbal. He knows Real Madrid well, and August’s Super Cup is evidence that Bayern are beatable, as we succumbed to Romelu Lukaku’s unfortunate penalty woe. Pep Guardiola’s team have improved during the course of the season, but so have we.
Chelsea: Schwarzer 5; Ivanovic 5, Terry 6, Cahill 6, Azpilicueta 6; Matic 5, Ramires 6; Salah 6 (Schurrle 66), Oscar 5 (Ba, 59), Willian 7; Eto’o 6 (Torres 74). Subs not used: Hilario, Luiz, Lampard, Mikel.
Sunderland: Mannone 6; Vergini 5, Brown 6, O’Shea 6, Alonso 6; Larsson 6 (Celustka 90), Cattermole 5, Colback 6, Johnson 5 (Giaccherini 65); Wickham 7 (Altidore 66), Borini 5. Subs not used: Ustari, E-H Ba, Scocco, Mavrias.
Referee: Mike Dean