Ranieri finds Chelsea's key

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The Independent Football

What with Ken Bates raging at the body he serves for sending Chelsea and Fulham to contest an FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park – "You have to ask who is running the FA, people elected throughout the country or the paid employees" – and his club's supporters bitterly complaining about the cost and scarcity of tickets, it might seem that nothing much changes at Stamford Bridge.

If it's not one thing it's another, but for the time being, at least, there are no complaints about the team. Three successive 4-0 victories have seen Chelsea reach the Cup's penultimate stage and nibble at a Champions' League spot, only three points behind fourth-placed Newcastle.

And it is not only Chelsea's form that is on the up and up. There is also a marked improvement in Claudio Ranieri's linguistic skills. The Chelsea manager's grasp of an alien tongue is not in the class of his predecessor, Gianluca Vialli, but more of the same on the field and it won't be long before we hear that he feels like an astronaut.

Consistency, Ranieri says, is the key. Beaten only twice in 17 games, Chelsea's season took off last week when they tore Tottenham apart twice in four days, scoring eight without reply. Now, another four goals, another clean sheet. "Yes, I like the clean sheet," Ranieri said. "I am an Italian."

And now it is time to forget. The next game, Liverpool at Anfield will determine whether Chelsea can deliver the consistency Ranieri wants. "We have to put everything behind us and concentrate on that match," he added. "At Liverpool the players will learn more about themselves and I will learn more about them."

If Ranieri did not know it before, one of the things he learned from Saturday's 4-0 defeat of Sunderland was that his men are not about to let difficult opponents intrude upon their growing confidence. What looks like a another handsome victory was only secured in the 73rd minute when the game's most effective player, Jesper Gronkjaer, set up Eidur Gudjohnsen for a brilliantly-taken goal.

For most of the second half Sunderland's manager, Peter Reid, had looked as though he was sending out the veteran striker Niall Quinn, sensing that a point could still be taken. "It might sound daft," Reid said, "but we'd done pretty well, had our share of the ball and I felt that Quinny might nick something. But once Gudjohnsen scored it was all over. We weren't coming back from there."

Short of Kevin Phillips and Claudio Reyna – "they wanted to play but the injuries were muscular, not knocks, so the risk wasn't worth taking," Reid said – Sunderland flooded the midfield, leaving Patrick Mboma to operate as a lone striker. Given the problem of finding a way through this maze, Chelsea might have struggled more than they did but for the contribution made by Gronkjaer, whose return from injury is proving timely.

If at times irritatingly anonymous, Gronkjaer's pace and strength unquestionably increases Chelsea's attacking potential, providing width and a source of supply for Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, whose combination play is not bettered anywhere in the Premiership.

In their efforts to hold out against Gronkjaer's surges, Sunderland gave away a succession of corner-kicks, finally leading to a Marcel Desailly header to which William Gallas got the faintest of scoring touches. Backs to the wall, Sunderland laboured on.

Caught up in the relegation struggle that has brought Reid under pressure from disgruntled supporters, they had no pentration, no inspiration, their plight emphasised by the choice of an England left-back, Michael Gray, on the right side of midfield. As Reid readily admitted, effort is not a problem, it is more quality he needs.

In this corresponding fixture last season, exactly a year ago, Sunderland won 4-2 at Chelsea to reach fourth place in the table. All thoughts on Wearside are now on whether Sunderland can stay up. Next game, Southampton at home. "Massive," Reid said. That Chelsea had scored two further goals in the last six minutes, both fulminating strikes, one from the prolific substitute Mikael Forssell, who notched up his ninth of the season, the other from Sam Dalla Bona, meant nothing to Sunderland's manager.

Goals: Gallas (24) 1-0; Gudjohnsen (73) 2-0; Forssell (84) 3-0; Dalla Bona (90) 4-0.

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 6; Melchiot 6, Desailly 6, Gallas 7, Babayaro 6, Gronkjaer 7 (Stanic, 79), Dalla Bona 6, Lampard 6, Le Saux 6 (Zola, 86), Hasselbaink 6, Gudjohnsen 7 (Forssell, 82). Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Jokanovic.

Sunderland (4-5-1): Sorensen 7; Haas 6, Craddock 6, Williams 6, McCartney 6, Gray 6, McCann 6, Thirlwell 6 (Quinn, 79), Schwarz 6 (Bellion 6, 66), Kilbane 6, Mboma 6. Substitutes not used: Macho (gk), Clark, Kyle.

Bookings: Chelsea: Babayaro, Dalla Bona. Sunderland: Williams, McCartney.

Referee: B Knight (Kent).

Man of the match: Gronkjaer.

Attendance: 40,218.

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