Only supporters of a certain greyness could remember a Sunderland victory at Stamford Bridge. It was 40 years ago. For almost 40 minutes yesterday there were only remote hints of the drama that would end with Sunderland appearing to be on the end of a rout, but in reality coming within reach of making distant history repeat itself before they became victims of their own desperation to achieve a comeback that deserved points for effort.
The lure of Wembley seemed to have diverted Chelsea's attention when, earlier in the week, they had succumbed to another of the relegation-threatened sides, West Ham. It was an understandable lack of attention, compounded by the resting of Roberto Di Matteo and the initial benching of Mark Hughes. No one was excused full commitment yesterday, and it was needed. Sunderland's reputation for making superior teams struggle is well earned.
The omens were for a grudging game and they were quickly fulfilled when Dennis Wise clattered into Paul Bracewell after eight minutes and was booked. The tone was set. Marginally the current went with Chelsea but flickered. A violently dipping, low early drive from Di Matteo had Lionel Perez grasping the ball only at the second attempt, and Gianfranco Zola defied his recent finishing by snatching at Craig Burley's low cross when only six yards out.
Predictably, from a team so short of goals, Sunderland also snatched at their several chances but they had no one to approach the midfield authority of Wise, whose passing was the anchor of Chelsea's best work culminating in the 38th-minute goal Zola volleyed in magnificently from a ball neatly pulled back across goal by Dan Petrescu.
The value of Zola was doubly enjoyed by Chelsea when, shortly before half-time, his outswinging centre was badly missed by the Sunderland defence, allowing Frank Sinclair to head in. Zola continued to go uncontrolled and savoured another moment of freedom early in the second half, but his fierce shot was turned away by Perez only for Petrescu to push it back beyond him.
A three-goal lead and Chelsea should have been beyond threat, but two Sunderland goals in two minutes around the hour suddenly changed all that. A centre from Michael Bridges, a head-on by Kevin Ball and the effective substitute Paul Stewart beat Frode Grodas in the air to head in. Two minutes later another Sunderland substitute, Alex Rae, was in the middle of an enormous goalmouth melee caused by Andy Melville's centre but resolved it with a stab in to give Sunderland hope, only to have it snatched away when Melville himself lost possession to Hughes some 30 yards out and the Welshman ran on powerfully into the penalty area, calmly beating Perez.
Massive effort by Stewart to haul back Sunderland deserved better than to see Gianluca Vialli come on to punish an onrushing defence and slip a pass inside, again to Hughes, who tapped in Chelsea's fifth. Similarly, the fragile Sunderland defence was committed to attack when, in the 92nd minute, Di Matteo ran through them to claim the sixth.
Goals: Zola (38) 1-0; Sinclair (43) 2-0; Petrescu (52) 3-0; Stewart (58) 3-1; Rae (60) 3-2; Hughes (77) 4-2; Hughes (89) 5-2; Di Matteo (92) 6-2.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Grodas; Sinclair, Clarke, Myers (Parker, 66); Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Burley, Minto; M Hughes, Zola (Vialli, 84). Substitutes not used: Morris, P Hughes, Colgan (gk).
Sunderland: (4-4-2) Perez; Hall (Rae, 46), Melville, Ord, Kubicki; Bracewell, Bull, Gray, Kelly; Mullin (Stewart, 46), Bridges (Howey, 78). Substitutes not used: Russell, Preece (gk).
Referee: G Willard (Worthing).
Bookings: Chelsea: Wise, Hughes. Sunderland: Mullin, Rae, Kelly.
Man of the match: Wise.
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