When the Ivory Coast begin their African Nations Cup campaign against Sudan next Sunday, it is a reasonable bet that Fernando Torres will be hoping they win. Indeed, the Chelsea striker will be cheering them all the way to the final on 12 February.
Torres knows that for as long as Didier Drogba and his countrymen are in Africa, he will be playing centre-forward for Chelsea. Even if Ivory Coast are knocked out in the group stages, Torres is guaranteed at least five matches and this was the second. The knowledge appears to have relaxed him for yesterday we saw the Torres of old: running at opponents, taking them on, demanding the ball, scoring goals.
Ah, not quite. The last aspect, the most crucial one for a £50m striker, was not there, but Torres again hit the bar, and the shot that did so led to the only goal of the game. Frank Lampard was the scorer, his 181st for Chelsea, this one a somewhat fortuitous poacher's effort from a player who always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
That was in the 13th minute and it seemed to set Chelsea up for a routine win, their third in a row. But Chelsea cannot close games out the way they used to and Sunderland, as might be expected given their manager and their form, refused to go quietly. Busy, vibrant and resilient, they took the game to the London side and with better finishing would have gained the draw they merited.
"I'm very disappointed and frustrated," said Martin O'Neill, the Sunderland manager. "We had the best opportunities and we missed at least five and that's too many. Scoring goals is difficult, but it is not that difficult. A blundering full-back from four leagues below could have put a couple of those away."
There was also a strong penalty claim, Ashley Cole jumping into Nicklas Bendtner in the 58th minute. Phil Dowd, who seconds before had turned down a penalty appeal by Torres, waved play on. "It's a definite penalty," said O'Neill, who intimated that it was not given because it came so soon after the Torres incident. However, Torres should later have had a penalty when tripped by Phil Bardsley, but was booked for simulation.
Andre Villas-Boas was disinclined to discuss either incident, preferring to praise Torres. "His performance was good. He is getting a good run of games and finding form. He has all the team and fans behind him and it is good to see him picking up confidence. He hasn't been scoring, but he is getting nearer all the time." Torres has not scored in three months but Villas-Boas added: "I don't think he has to score as long as he helps the team to win games."
Chelsea were watched by Gary Cahill who passed a medical yesterday. He may start at Norwich next week for this was another of David Luiz's Jekyll and Hyde displays, the latter on display in the 93rd minute when he allowed Bendtner to run off him on to Connor Wickham's pass, only for the Dane to shoot wide.
That was Bendtner's third miss, he also put a header and a shot wide in the first half. James McClean wasted very good opportunities in the third minute when set up by Stephane Sessegnon, and 65th from Seb Larsson's cross; and Craig Gardner shot wide in the 89th minute.
Chelsea had chances, Torres and Juan Mata testing Simon Mignolet, but it was the old faithful who actually scored. From's Mata right-wing cross, Torres performed an acrobatic overhead kick. The ball hit the bar, the third time Torres has struck it with spectacular efforts in Chelsea's recent home games. It bounced down and Lampard, smartly changing his body shape, diverted the ball in for his ninth league goal of the season.
There was more good news for Villas-Boas with the return of Michael Essien, out all season with a knee injury, for the last 18 minutes. "It is great to see him back on the pitch," said Villas-Boas. The Ghanaian's drive and energy has certainly been missed.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Romeu; Meireles, Lampard (Essien, 73); Ramires, Torres, Mata (Malouda, 85).
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, O'Shea, Kilgallon (Turner, 45), Richardson (Wickham, 80); Larsson, Vaughan (Gardner, 70), Cattermole, McLean; Sessegnon; Bendtner.
Referee Phil Dowd.
Man of the match Torres (Chelsea).
Match rating 7/10.