One week after Barnsley, Chelsea have re-established some semblance of self-esteem. Seven goals and six points have come, albeit against two relegation contenders, Derby County and Sunderland. But if Chelsea are to regain the title, it is their next two games that will shape their fate, Tottenham away on Wednesday night followed by Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Avram Grant's team will need to play more sustained football in those 180 minutes than they displayed here. Having gone ahead through John Terry's 10th-minute goal, Terry's first for Chelsea for 19 months, Grant saw his team promise considerably more than they delivered. Had Sunderland a more potent strikeforce, Chelsea would have been punished.
But Kenwyne Jones is Sunderland's leading scorer and he has now one goal in his last 20 matches. Jones is not alone in his drought, Sunderland have not scored as a team since 9 February.
This was their fourth consecutive game without a goal and Roy Keane's team couldbe third-bottom by tomorrow night. Hence Chelsea were able to take a lead and then witdraw into themselves for the last hour.
"For the first 30 minutes we played very well," Grant said. "We passed the ball very well and could have scored more. But after that it was more difficult. It's not easy to play here, Sunderland are fighting for their lives and they fought very well. I'm happy with the result."
After Barnsley, as with after Tottenham in the Carling Cup final, Grant said he was pleased with the reaction. "When we lose a game it makes us stronger, not weaker."
Chelsea will be stronger for the inclusion of Nicolas Anelka on Wednesday. Anelka had a hamstring niggle and was missing. That meant another start for Salomon Kalou, who was as sprightly as most in a bright blue opening half-hour. But Kalou faded markedly, as did Joe Cole, leaving Didier Drogba to carry the attack.
Not that Drogba was doing much attacking for the bulk of this game. Yet he looked capable of piercing Sunderland at will in the beginning and contributed to the early pressure that led to home panic and away corners.
It was from one of these that Terry rose to score. It was too easy for both parties, Terry moving away from Jones as Frank Lampard's curling centre reached the six-yard box. Terry's header was firm and gave Craig Gordon no chance, though the goalkeeper might have come to claim the ball away from Terry.
Jonny Evans had already made one block from Joe Cole and when the lively Ashley Cole supplied Joe Cole with another opportunity on 18 minutes it should have been 2-0 and game over.
But there was no second and gradually Sunderland edged their way back into contention. Roy O'Donovan had an optimistic claim for a penalty when dragged down by Terry shortly before the goal – "No penalty," said Keane afterwards – and Dean Whitehead plus Andy Reid grew in influence.
When Reid clipped an exquisite free-kick over the blue wall on 27 minutes it appeared the equaliser was on its way.
But Carlo Cudicini produced a prodigious leap and a firm hand to save. Cudicini was also impressive later on when under pressure at set-pieces. TheItalian was happy to be in the right place when saving from Grant Leadbitter on 53 minutes and then, decisively, from Jones with 15 minutes left.
Dwight Yorke, on as a substitute, floated a perfect cross over Terry and on to Jones's head eight yards out. Any force or direction and Jones's header would have beaten Cudicini but it lacked either of those commodities.
The Stadium of Light groaned, just as it did when Jones missed with another header and when a Whitehead shot slithered past the post in injury time.
But when the whistle went there were thunderous claps and Keane said: "Very rarely do you get applauded off when youlose a game. There were a lotof pluses today, AndyReid, Carlos Edwards, Roy O'Donovan - Kenwyne Jones was outstanding. "It was a sloppy goal from a needless corner so I've mixed emotions. But over the 90 minutes I thought the reaction was brilliant."
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