Chelsea 2 Sunderland 0: Shevchenko fills Drogba void to steer Chelsea home

Unconvincing Blues stumble to win but lose top scorer to knee surgery
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The Independent Football

One suspected that, for Roy Keane, this would always be a case of damage limitation. In that context, two goals conceded and the late dismissal of Liam Miller could almost be considered an acceptable return for a daunting journey south; one where the hosts' goalscoring potency was diminished by the loss of Didier Drogba who underwent an operation on a knee yesterday morning but far from absent.

His replacement Andriy Shevchenko's fine headed opener for Chelsea was the feature of a lively exhibition from the Ukranian.

However, unlike a fortnight ago, after the ignominy of their 7-1 defeat at Everton, there will be no requirement for the Sunderland manager to take to his bed for two days. Not that this soporific confrontation did not, at times, threaten to send us all to sleep. Chances, even those fashioned by Chelsea, were at a premium, though their manager Avram Grant can reflect on a ninth game without loss. Ultimately, it was a comfortable enough home victory, with Frank Lampard adding a second-half penalty, though there had been a period after the interval when Sunderland had suggested they may just fashion an equaliser.

"Yeah, a lot better than [the] Everton [game]," the Sunderland manager observed drily. "But if it had been any worse, then God help us." With typical candour, the Irishman added: "You've got to remember that Chelsea were missing some important players [Ricardo Carvalho and Michael Essien as well as Drogba] and I'm not sure that they got out of first gear."

Drogba had always been expected to miss yesterday's game, anyway. But, according to club doctor Brian English, it was immediately decided that the Ivorian needed the operation on his knee after it locked in training on Friday.

Though having the operation now means that Drogba could be fit to represent the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations which starts on 20 January, that is far from certain.

"Are we losing him to the African Nations Cup?" asked Grant and the Israeli manager answered his own question with: "We want him to be well. If his knee is OK and he plays in the competition then good, but if he can also play for Chelsea then that is also good."

On a rare League start Shevchenko soon began to endear himself to the home faithful. Midway through the first half he launched himself spectacularly at the far post to head home Salomon Kalou's cross. The goal, Shevchenko's fourth of the season, would have provoked trepidation among Keane's men that recent history may be about to repeat itself, despite having mounted a rearguard action from the first minute, with Kenwyne Jones left as the only advanced player but Keane's men rarely possessed the confidence to support him in numbers. When they did, at set-pieces, it was to no avail. The manager's laser-eyes bore into Ross Wallace's back after a wasted free-kick on a rare sortie.

Chelsea caused early problems when Kalou got his head to a Joe Cole corner, but the ball struck the crossbar. Shaun Wright-Phillips had a penalty appeal rejected after he tumbled under the challenge of Dean Whitehead.

With Joe Cole causing consternation on the flanks and and Shevchenko reminding us what a fine performer he once was the manner in which he skipped around Greg Halford on one occasion was a delight Chelsea always appeared likely to increase their advantage.

Their failure to translate possession into goals instilled belief in the Sunderland ranks in the second half. Yet 12 minutes from time the Blues extinguished that hope, with the aid of the referee, Peter Walton, who adjudged that Danny Higginbotham had pulled back Alex as Lampard delivered a free-kick into the visitors' area.

There was still time for Miller to be dismissed, after shoving a hand into the face of a Chelsea substitute, the striker Claudio Pizarro. But the points were already Chelsea's. Still, Keane would probably have got some sleep last night.