Monday 22 January 2018

Hazard masterclass papers over cracks in defence to sink Sunderland

Sunderland 3 Chelsea 4

Chelsea's Eden Hazard (second right) celebrates with team-mates
Chelsea's Eden Hazard (second right) celebrates with team-mates

Luke Edwards

Premier League campaigns are never won in December, but so many decisive battles are and this was an important victory at the start of a pivotal month for Chelsea masterminded by the brilliant Eden Hazard.

Had it not been for Hazard's inspired work, Chelsea would have been accused of shooting themselves in the foot after poor defending allowed Sunderland to score at the start of both halves. Self-inflicted injuries are the most difficult to recover from, but Hazard ensured they left with a swagger rather than a limp. This was as close to a one-man victory as you can get in a team sport. Hazard created one goal and scored two wonderful individual efforts, bewitching Sunderland with his footwork before killing them with the accuracy of his shooting.

Jose Mourinho openly questioned his team's title credentials on their last visit to the North East, furious at the way they had limped to a 2-0 defeat at Newcastle with little more than a shrug of their expensive shoulders.

Unacceptable was Mourinho's assessment and the manager would have reminded his team of their shortcomings with the intention of avoiding a repeat here. They still started slowly and Sunderland came close to taking the lead with their first attack, Fabio Borini spinning away from two cumbersome defenders inside the area, but he dragged his shot wide of the far post.

Champions are able to ride early storms like these as if they are nothing more than a spot of drizzle, but Chelsea did not, their sloppy defending punished by Jozy Altidore. It would be tempting to say that Sunderland had worked on the free-kick routine in training, although it owed more to good fortune and quick thinking than preparation. Andrea Dossena tried to sneak a low free-kick under a jumping wall of Chelsea players, failed and hit a trailing leg. The rebound fell to Jack Colback, who cleverly side-footed a first-time pass to Altidore. The American has played 12 times in the Premier League for Sunderland and failed to score, but he finished clinically this time. Mourinho, though, will want to know why Altidore was given the time and space to control the ball with one touch and lash it past Petr Cech on the turn with his second.

That gave Chelsea the kick up the posterior they needed and their response was fitting of a team hoping to finish top of the Premier League pile. Cutting through Sunderland with their quick passing, the ball was worked out wide to Hazard, who made a fool of Craig Gardner before delicately sending over a cross for Frank Lampard to meet with a header.

Sunderland's lead had lasted less than three minutes but their willingness to take the game to their opponents remained and Dossena almost put them in front again with a shot Cech did well to touch with his fingertips.

As spirited as they were, Sunderland are bottom of the table because they have severe limitations and they were exposed by Hazard. The Belgian picked the ball up on the left, danced past a couple of half-hearted defenders and smashed a shot into the far corner from 20 yards. He should be praised for the skill but it was far too easy for him to execute.

Chelsea appeared to have repaired the damage done by their early lethargy, but they undid their good work when they failed to clear a simple corner.

There is no way such an unthreatening low cross should have found its way to the middle of the area where John O'Shea gleefully met it with a shot that Gary Cahill could not block on the line.

Once again Chelsea's offensive players were needed to remedy the situation and Fernando Torres should have scored his side's third goal after more excellent work from Hazard when he lifted a first time shot high into the stands.

Something strange happens to Chelsea strikers when they are away from Stamford Bridge. Not one of their specialist centre-forwards has scored an away goal in the Premier League in 2013.

Torres looked to the heavens. Chelsea looked to Hazard for inspiration.

Sunderland deployed two defenders to cope with his dribbling ability, but Hazard passed around them thanks to a Lampard back heal. On the move and unstoppable, Hazard wrong footed O'Shea and fired past Mannone.

The drama was not finished, Chelsea's vulnerability at the back resurfacing again. Phil Bardsley appeared to have wrapped up the three points for the Londoners when he scored an own goal, but the full-back redeemed himself by scoring almost immediately at the other end. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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