Paolo Di Canio jumped about in his technical area yesterday, animated and emotional from start to the finish.
He spoke furtively to his assistants with his hand covering his mouth as if there might be spies watching his every move. He wore a loud diamond-patterned sweater under a suit that would not look out of place on a Home Counties golf course.
But, by the end, Sunderland were only outside the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference after Wigan’s late equaliser at Loftus Road and their new manager has only six games to turn it around.
For a while the first-half display looked like it might be good enough for at least a point but, ultimately, Chelsea did not have to play particularly well to win this game. The home side were sleepwalking through much of the first half, went in a goal behind and then won the match with two goals within 10 minutes of the start of the second half.
As for Di Canio, he was animated throughout, whispering into the ear of Craig Gardner at the end of the game with the kind of earnestness of a man passing on his dying wishes. Gardner, substituted in the 82nd minute, looked like he was just a little bit confused. Then Di Canio broke away to give Yossi Benayoun a hearty hand-clasp and man-hug.
If points could be earned for grimaces, shrugs and sheer volume of pointing, then Sunderland’s manager would be well on his way to leading his team to safety. As it is he got a decent first-half performance out of them and then watched them fade away against a Chelsea side playing their third game at Stamford Bridge in the space of eight days.
Di Canio took his time arriving for his post-match press conference, having been through a full debrief with a team that have now taken three points from their last 27. It ended when he took exception to being asked why Chris Powell, whom he had cited last week as a character reference in the midst of the storm over his political views, had declined to vouch for the Italian’s character. A fair question, but Di Canio thinks it’s behind him now.
He was more interested in questioning the physical state of the team he inherited from Martin O’Neill. It was a problem compounded, he said, by losing Danny Graham to a knee injury, meaning Connor Wickham started in attack. “I’m not going to say they’re not fit,” Di Canio said, before adding: “It’s not the fittest team in the world. But we are going to work and give them more energy in the next few days and weeks.”
That could be difficult given that their potentially season-defining game against Newcastle at St James’ Park is coming on Sunday but then Di Canio is not short of confidence.
The biggest change from life at Swindon Town was that at Sunderland he was not always preparing a team, he said, with the expectation they would win the game. “But if you are a good manager, like I am, you can change,” he said.
Was he a good manager? “No,” he said. “I’m a very good manager.” The post-match was becoming another examination of the life and times of Di Canio. He does not seem to mind.
“When you are a manager you’d like to be successful and receive respect from the others,” he said, when asked about how he would prefer to be perceived. “You can’t make everybody happy anyway. I’m Paolo Di Canio and I’m like how I am. There are quiet people and quiet managers, very noble persons. Today I was very calm because I saw my players playing very well. Maybe next time I won’t jump but I’ll scream more.”
If there was one saving grace in all this for Rafael Benitez it was that people seem to have forgotten about the animosity he has faced from the Chelsea fans. A lone “Rafa Out” banner still flaps on the home side of the Shed End but otherwise it was notably quiet in that respect yesterday as his side made it three wins in three since their defeat at Southampton.
The big concern for the Chelsea manager is the injury to Demba Ba which prevented him coming out for the second half, although it did mean that Fernando Torres was introduced to great effect. It was Torres’ run down the left two minutes after half-time that opened up Sunderland and allowed Oscar a shot on goal that was saved by Simon Mignolet and ricocheted in off Matthew Kilgallon.
The second Chelsea goal came on 55 minutes when Branislav Ivanovic reacted quickly to David Luiz’s shot from the edge of the area and re-directed it nicely with the inside of his boot, back to goal, past Mignolet.
Chelsea looked relatively comfortable after that although they were fortunate that referee Neil Swarbrick did not make more of an elbow by Luiz on Wickham.
The first half was a different story, with Sunderland spirited and good going forward, especially in the move right from the back on 19 minutes when a Luiz free-kick was blocked. It led to Danny Rose carrying the ball forward and via Stéphane Sessègnon it reached Adam Johnson whose shot was blocked by Luiz, Chelsea’s best performer.
The Sunderland goal came just before half-time when John O’Shea got his head to a right-wing corner from Johnson and Cesar Azpilicueta shanked the ball into his own goal. Come the second half, Sunderland just could not stay the course and build on their advantage.
Di Canio was asked afterwards about the description of him as “unlikeable” by David James, a former team-mate at West Ham, in his Sunday newspaper column. The answer was long and rambling but what Di Canio seemed to be saying is that everyone changes.
“We maintain the principles from when we’re young, but you change as a man, now as a manager,” he said. “I respect everyone’s opinion. But it’s not an issue for me, to be honest. I respect your job. I respect my ex-team-mates. But I am sure about myself. If you ask me, I can answer. But if I have to answer every comment, we’ll be here all day.”
The new arrival was applauded by the travelling Sunderland support at the end, although there are those who have vowed to stay away. Di Canio’s feeling about those fans? “I’m sorry for them”.
Bookings: Sunderland Gardner, Rose
Man of the match Luiz
Match rating 6/10
Possession: Chelsea 62%. Sunderland 38%
Attempts on target: Chelsea 3. Sunderland 0
Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire)