The FourFourTwo Preview: Sunderland vs Chelsea
The start of a monster week for the Black Cats, as Mourinho and his Portuguese sidekick plot revenge.
- Leicester 0-0 S’land (Prem)
- S’land 1-1 Everton (Prem)
- Palace 1-3 S’land (Prem)
- S’land 0-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- So’ton 8-0 S’land (Prem)
- Schalke 0-5 Chelsea (CL)
- Chelsea 2-0 WBA (Prem)
- Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea (Prem)
- Maribor 1-1 Chelsea (CL)
- Chelsea 2-1 QPR (Prem)
Another week, another two wins for Chelsea, and just the seven goals scored without reply. Such is their imperious form, both domestically and in Europe, Jose Mourinho was asked a chin-scratching question in his press conference this week: could this current Blues team be their greatest ever?
"This team, to be so good or better than other Chelsea teams, this team needs to win titles," replied Mourinho. "In this moment, this team is completely different to my Chelsea team in 2004-08. At this moment, this team has zero titles."
Serial trophy-hauler Jose is right to be dismissive of such a claim - after all, many of Chelsea's recent league campaigns have derailed in the weeks leading up to Christmas - but ask the Stamford Bridge faithful if they'd trade the current first team for their title winners of yore, and few would take up the offer.
With the world class talents of Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois settling in with ease and Nemanja Matic's rangy frame now thriving in front of the back four, the Blues' 2014/15 team would seem to have it all: the defensive solidity of Mourinho's 2004-08, combined with the free-scoring flair of Carlo Ancelotti's 2009/10.
"I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say I don't remember enjoying a football match as much as I did personally in the first half," purred Fabregas following last Saturday's 2-0 win over West Brom.
Confidence couldn't be any higher at the Bridge, then, but if Mourinho has any concerns about his charges resting on their laurels, he should haul them into the cinema room at the Blues' Cobham training ground (we've never seen it but at £40 million there has to be one) and show them a re-run of their last meeting with Saturday's opponents, Sunderland, before kicking a flip-chart across the room, as he once did at Inter.
Oh, and maybe send assistant coach Rui Faria to the newsagents to fetch the popcorn, just to be safe.
Fighting to save their lives in the Prem back in April, Gus Poyet's Black Cats stunned Stamford Bridge with a famous 2-1 victory - ending Chelsea's 77-match unbeaten home record under Mourinho while seriously denting the Blues' title hopes.
It was all too much for Faria, who tried to confront referee Mike Dean after he awarded the Sunderland a mildly controversial penalty, which Fabio Borini scored against his former club. Faria's histrionics would earn him a four-match ban.
Poyet had little to lose in such a daunting away fixture, but having deployed a back-to-basics approach in the wake of their 8-0 trouncing to Southampton and calamitous 2-0 loss to Arsenal, expect caution to be key for the Wearsiders come Saturday, even at home, as they look to continue a run of three games unbeaten.
Last weekend's goalless snore-draw at Leicester provided little in the way of goalmouth drama, but there was an assuredness about the Sunderland backline that bodes well going into a run of games similar to that which ultimately saved their top-flight status in spring: Manchester City (H) and Liverpool (A) follow the visit of Chelsea to the Stadium of Light.
So what's changed for the Black Cats in recent weeks? The inclusion of 'keeper Costel Pantilimon and left-back Anthony Reveillere into Poyet's 4-1-4-1 set-up has certainly helped, but it's been skipper John O'Shea who has impressed the most. Against Nigel Pearson's Foxes, the centre-back bossed the Sunderland back four with real authority as he kept Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy at bay.
Diego Costa et al will surely be a far tougher test, but Sunderland will take heart from their two home meetings with Chelsea last term: the first a 4-3 defeat in a game the Blues would surely have lost if it wasn't for the brilliance of Eden Hazard; the second a 2-1 extra-time win for the hosts in the League Cup quarters.
Goals are usually guaranteed: there have been 53 in the last 12 league meetings, including 29 in the last six at the Stadium of Light. That's [scrambles around for a calculator] very nearly five per game. Phew.
It's good news for Gus. Defender Sebastian Coates (thigh) and winger Ricky Alvarez (knee) should both be available, although the Sunderland boss might be hesitant to throw either into the starting line-up following lengthy layoffs. Full-back Billy Jones (hamstring) and midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini (ankle) are also very close to a return, but the visit of Manchester City on Wednesday is a more realistic target for both. Former Chelsea defender Patrick van Aanholt (shoulder) is the only long-term casualty.
Tiredness could play a factor in Mourinho's selection, with the journey to Wearside almost as long as that to Gelsenkirchen. Nathan Ake (hamstring) is the only absentee from the squad, with Jose insisting his goal-pig Costa will be fit, despite picking up a knock in the 5-0 win in Germany.
Key battle: Anthony Reveillere vs Willian
Alongside O'Shea, veteran defender Reveillere has thus far proved a more-than-able replacement for Van Aanholt, despite being more accustomed to playing on the right, and credit must go to Poyet for signing the out-of-contract former Napoli man. Reveillere had his work cut out against Leicester, with Riyad Mahrez proving a real handful, but the Frenchman showed his experience, making the most interceptions in the game, with one superbly timed block denying the Foxes a golden chance to open the scoring.
He can expect a similarly busy 90 minutes against Chelsea's Willian, who was at his powerful, pacy best at Schalke. The Brazilian tormented the Germans in a man-of-the-match display, creating more chances than any team-mate, as well as completing a delightful team move with a fine finish for the Blues' second goal.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Chelsea 1-2 S’land (PL, Apr 14)
- S’land e2-1 Chelsea (LC, Dec 13)
- S’land 3-4 Chelsea (PL, Dec 13)
- Chelsea 2-1 S’land (PL, Apr 13)
- S’land 1-3 Chelsea (PL, Dec 12)
Never short of a soundbite in press conferences, Poyet - loved by most Chelsea fans for the four successful years he spent at the club; loathed by others for his subsequent spell at Tottenham - is predictably enthusiastic about the three big games ahead, although he's hinted at a safety-first approach.
"Everyone is going to try to be the one to beat Chelsea first this season and we have an opportunity," he said.
"We know Chelsea is the best team in the league and it is going to be difficult, but we've done it before.
"We need to play them and then concentrate on City, then Liverpool. You need to be careful. These games are the ones that are tricky as if they score early and you are open too much it can be a disaster."
As for Mourinho, he won't care much for Poyet's trophy-laden Chelsea past, much as he didn't care for Roberto Di Matteo's ahead of the Blues' demolition job in Germany.
"You are going to say Schalke were not good," he told reporters after the game. "Yes, they made mistakes, but the reality is any team that played against us would feel it was very difficult. The players played a fantastic match and Schalke have to accept we were too strong for them." That's you told, Robbie.
Facts and figures
- Diego Costa has scored 11 goals in 10 Premier League appearances, while Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore has scored 2 in 65.
- Cesc Fabregas has scored 4 goals against Sunderland in the Premier League, more than he has netted against any other opponent in the competition.
- Sunderland have lost their last 9 Premier League home games against Chelsea. Another win for Chelsea would set a Premier League record for consecutive home defeats to the same opposition.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Sunderland to frustrate before the break, only for Chelsea to turn the screw once the first goal goes in. 1-3.
Back 1-3 at 12/1 with Bet365. Odds right at time of publication