Cocky as you like after two successive 4-0 drubbings of Tottenham, Chelsea were lured into complacency before rousing themselves to dispose of a feeble Sunderland side, whose record of only 23 goals in their 30 League games is worse than anyone in the Premiership bar Leicester City. Peter Reid's team are slipping further into trouble, while Chelsea, beaten only twice in 17 games, continue to make up ground on Newcastle in the chase for the fourth Champions' League place.
That gap is now down to three points and the confidence flowing through the side makes it bridgeable if feet are kept firmly enough on the ground. The next game, away to Liverpool, will determine whether Chelsea have found some consistency at last.
Exactly one year ago, when promisingly placed, the London side lost 4-2 at home to Sunderland, who went into fourth place in the table before tailing off. But this has been a dull old season for the Wearsiders and their increasingly rebellious supporters as Reid's squad have never looked capable of taking the next step forward and improving on an impressive seventh place in the previous two years.
In fact there has been serious concern about becoming caught up at the bottom; when the manager says that a 1-0 home win over Bolton Wanderers "has given everyone a lift" it can be assumed that times are hard. Yesterday, Reid claimed: "It might sound ridiculous but I thought we did alright." It did.
Superficially, anyone who can rely upon a striking partnership of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn should not need to envy many other pairs of forwards in the land. But Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen have put the Sunderland men in the shade with their 49 goals this season.
In any case, there was no chance yesterday to make comparisons, pale or otherwise: A thigh strain meant that Phillips, who had not previously missed a single minute of a Sunderland game this season, was hors de combat, while Reid left it far too late to summon his lanky Irishman from the dug-out. Just as Quinn was easing the stiffness out of his ageing frame, Gudjohnsen struck Chelsea's second goal and the game was effectively over.
The visitors' tactics until then were to flood the midfield, leaving Patrick Mboma on his own in attack, which made for poor entertainment as Chelsea struggled for the first quarter of the game to find a way through.
When they did, after 24 minutes, Sunderland's normally reliable goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, was culpable. He made as if to move towards a corner swung over from the right by Graeme Le Saux, then stopped and watched as William Gallas nudged in Marcel Desailly's free header.
The visiting supporters had nothing to get excited about until either side of half-time. Gavin McCann, one of Sven Goran Eriksson's more arcane international selections, headed a Michael Gray corner past a post and Carlo Cudicini was at last called upon to make a save, diving to his left to push away Kevin Kilbane's low 25-yard drive.
Sorensen, not troubled for almost half an hour after his blunder, then fumbled a cross-shot from the lively Jesper Gronkjaer, and did better as Chelsea finally put together an authentic passing move; Gronkjaer took Mario Melchiot's penetrative pass and cut the ball back for Hasselbaink, whose fierce effort was well saved.
Sunderland – as so often – needed more firepower, but Reid's first substitution left Quinn in the dug-out, merely exchanging one midfielder for another.
Unable to take the initiative, they paid a heavy penalty 17 minutes from the end. Gronkjaer shruggedd off the left-back, George McCartney, – illegally Sunderland felt – and veered inside before feeding Gudjohnsen for a deft chip over the goalkeeper.
Quinn arrived belatedly, but Chelsea tails were up. The supersub, Mikael Forssell, came on to score as usual, and in stoppage time Sam Dalla Bona drove in Melchiot's pass for another 4-0 win.
"It's just like playing Tottenham" Stamford Bridge chanted. In the end it was that easy.Reuse content