LONDON -- If anyone needed further proof that football is no respecter of reputations and narratives, the events of Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge provided it in spades.
Those who arrived expecting Chelsea to set up the mother of all Premier League title showdowns with Liverpool at Anfield next weekend left having witnessed something far more momentous. Jose Mourinho’s 77-game home league unbeaten run is gone and so too, you would think, all realistic hope of the trophy returning to Stamford Bridge after a four-year absence.
For those of a blue persuasion the afternoon began on an unsettling note with the news that Petr Cech had been omitted from the first-team squad with an illness. In his absence Mark Schwarzer became the oldest player in Chelsea’s history, but his afternoon was soured after just 18 minutes. The goalkeeper could only parry Marcos Alonso’s firm but hardly spectacular shot straight into the path of Connor Wickham, who slotted in.
The error which leveled the match was merely one example of the nerviness which appeared evident throughout the 41-year-old’s performance, but it would be unfair to level the blame for this most devastating of setbacks solely on the shoulders of a rusty veteran.
In truth, this defeat sprang from the same problems which have dogged Mourinho’s second Chelsea side all season. They have particularly appeared since the turn of the year against sides which are, on paper, vastly inferior to any team of stars assembled at the vast expense of Roman Abramovich.
Sunderland arrived with a game plan and executed it perfectly: sit deep and allow Chelsea to be confronted by its own chronic lack of imagination and ruthlessness. It was nothing new – Aston Villa, West Brom, Crystal Palace and West Ham have all exposed the Blues in this way in recent months – but it remains, despite Mourinho’s best efforts, a very effective ploy.
The enthusiasm of Gus Poyet’s men for battle frequently manifested itself in cynical fouling – with Lee Cattermole in particular embracing the role of pantomime villain in front of an enraged Stamford Bridge crowd – and was often not pretty to watch, but it was exactly what the situation required.
Samuel Eto’o’s 12th-minute opener was not in the script but soon afterwards Schwarzer gave them a lifeline. They did not require another.
Chelsea huffed and puffed – you could never fault a Mourinho team for effort – but with Juan Mata long gone, Eden Hazard injured and Oscar looking physically and mentally jaded after 18 excruciatingly busy months, the Blues never looked like picking the lock to the Sunderland defense after Wickham’s equalizer.
Mourinho did not wait long before switching tactics, only to find that this particular door would not be battered down. Demba Ba and Andre Schurrle were introduced but never looked like replicating their Champions League heroics against Paris Saint-Germain, while Fernando Torres produced what has become a trademark display of enthusiastic nothingness.
This team is painfully toothless. Eto’o has been no disgrace but the fact that all 12 of his goals in a Chelsea shirt have come at Stamford Bridge only serves to highlight the problem. It remains to be seen whether Diego Costa is the answer to Mourinho’s most pressing need, but few would bet against the Spaniard further humiliating the Blues’ current frontmen on Tuesday evening.
There were positives, albeit few and far between. Nemanja Matic has been nothing short of superb since his arrival, and was the lone beacon of light again.
The Serb’s best work, however, was undermined by the irredeemable shoddiness of Ramires.
The Brazilian, back in the Chelsea side after serving a three-match ban for a disgraceful stamp on Karim El Ahmadi, was at his dithering, impetuous worst and appears hell-bent on saving himself entirely for the remainder of the Blues’ Champions League campaign. A Football Association charge for his petulant elbow on Sebastian Larsson looks inevitable.
Punishment will also surely follow for Mourinho and Rui Faria. The Portuguese assistant’s reaction to Mike Dean’s decision to award a soft penalty against Cesar Azpilicueta eight minutes from time was so ostentatiously aggressive that one had to wonder whether they were witnessing the fiery initiation of a classic Mourinho deflection tactic.
So it proved, as the the Happy One channeled the Sarcastic One in his post-match dealings with the media, congratulating Dean and referees’ boss Mike Riley for their “fantastic” performances.
But for all the bluster, one could not escape the sense that this was another self-inflicted wound.
Whether it proves fatal depends entirely on whether Liverpool can maintain its incredible momentum against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Sunday. History is in the Reds' hands now.
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