Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho admitted referee Chris Foy had no option but to send off match-winner Arjen Robben in a pulsating encounter at Sunderland.
The Dutchman was dismissed after over-celebrating his decisive 69th-minute strike after being booked for a first-half foul as the Barclays Premiership leaders came from behind to see off a spirited Black Cats side. Robben was devastated to receive his marching orders, but Mourinho, who offered him a consoling handshake as he left the pitch, said the official had no choice with the second yellow card, if believing the first was harsh.
"I don't like a yellow card card when a player celebrates with the fans, but it's the rule and you have to adapt to it," he said. "I think it would be easy for a referee to give one more minute extra time instead of the second yellow card.
"The player celebrates with the fans, it takes a little bit more time - instead of three minutes extra time, he gives four or five and it's done. But I think Foy did well because he did what the rule says he had to do. "The first yellow card is not a yellow card - it was just in front of me - but again, referees can make these little mistakes, so of course I'm disappointed. "But it's a chance for (Damien) Duff and Shaun Wright-Phillips to play the next game because Arjen will be suspended. "Next time, he will not do it again. He will remember for (the rest of) his career because he has had a yellow card that he cannot celebrate with the fans when he scores a goal. "I'm happy with the result and the result is the most important thing for a football team."
The win - Hernan Crespo had cancelled out Liam Lawrence's 12th-minute opener before Dean Whitehead deflected Robben's shot past goalkeeper Kelvin Davis - took Chelsea 16 points clear of Manchester United in second place, although Mourinho is taking nothing for granted. "It's 16 from Manchester United, but Liverpool can get it down to 11 if they win the two matches they have to play," he said. "And there are a lot of matches too, I think 16, eight at home, eight away. "We are confident, we are strong, we will play when we have to play, we will fight when we have to fight like today, and I think we are in a very good situation. "But in football, you have to go until mathematically it is over."
The league leaders now enjoy a 55-point gap over the side they left rooted to the foot of the table, but Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy was able to take plenty of positives out of a battling display. "I'm sick we have lost, but pleased at the way we played and proud of the performance, actually," he said. "I guess it's indicative of where the two teams are that despite the fact that they had some chances and Kelvin played really well, it's a deflection that has won the game for them. "I'm full of admiration for (his players) because I don't know any other group of players that could keep having the disappointments they have had, having played well, and just keep their heads up and keep going and keep fighting like they are doing. "They can take a lot of credit for it. Individually, there have been some really good performances of late. Overall individually, they are getting better and better. "It might prove to be a little bit too late, but for their own development and the development of the team if the worst does happen and we get relegated, the players will be better for it, no question."
Meanwhile, Mourinho confirmed he will be making no further signings during the January transfer window, but may be persuaded to allow one member of his squad to leave Stamford Bridge. "It's open until the end of January, and until the end of January, anything can happen," he said. "New players, no, but one player to leave and try to find a better situation until the end of the season is possible if - I repeat, if - the player is very, very interested in that, not because we want it." However, the Portuguese declined to comment on England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson's reported comments on the fee he paid for Wright-Phillips.
Goals: Lawrence (12) 1-0, Crespo (28) 1-1, Robben (69) 1-2.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Davis; Hoyte, Caldwell, Breen, D Collins; Lawrence, Whitehead, Miller, Arca; Le Tallec (Gray, 81), Stead (Murphy, 81). Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Nosworthy, Bassila.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Gallas, Terry, Carvalho, Del Horno; Lampard, Makelele; J Cole (Duff, 63), Gudjohnsen (Huth, 83), Robben; Crespo (C Cole, 72). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Diarra.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Sunderland Stead; Chelsea Robben.
Sent off: Robben (70).
Man of the match: Arca.