Poyet: Chelsea stronger than ever
Gus Poyet has acknowledged his Sunderland side face a mighty task to replicate last season's stunning league and cup double when Chelsea visit the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Poyet knows Jose Mourinho's new and improved version represent a very different proposition to the one that had to settle for third place last season after seeing their 77-game unbeaten home run ended by the Black Cats in April.
That famous win was not the only joy Poyet had against his old club during the last campaign as the Wearsiders also dumped Chelsea out of the Capital One Cup with an extra-time win in December.
Poyet, who described Chelsea's 5-0 midweek Champions League win over Schalke as the "perfect" performance, warned: "This is a different Chelsea - a better one and a stronger one than last year.
"They were strong favourites before the season started and now after the games we've played so far without a doubt they are even bigger favourites. They are the best team in the country by far.
"I watched the (Schalke) game and it was impressive - let's hope they're not perfect again. For us it is the biggest challenge by far and when you play against the best team you need to be at your best."
With Chelsea's title rivals Manchester City following Mourinho's men to the Stadium of Light on Wednesday, Poyet must hope his side can invoke the spirit of last season's survival push when they managed to save their best for the big occasion.
Apart from their superb triumph at Stamford Bridge, the Black Cats also staged a smash-and-grab raid on Manchester United at Old Trafford and came agonisingly close to doing the same at champions-elect Manchester City.
Poyet added: "Last time we couldn't find a solution about beating the teams at the bottom and we always played better against the teams at the top.
"The idea this year is to maintain our performance against the top sides and be better against the lower sides. You have to do certain things and every player has to have a role.
"I think Chelsea do have weaknesses - things that happened in the past when we played them - but they are stronger this year than last year so it is going to be more difficult."
Poyet's injury worries continue to ease with the news that Argentinian midfielder Ricky Alvarez could make his first appearance since September after being ruled out with a knee injury.
The Uruguayan is keen to see a reaction from last weekend's frustrating goalless draw at Leicester which saw them slip back to 14th place in a tightly constricting top-flight table.
Poyet added: "There are four, five, six, seven teams above the rest and now people are talking about a relegation battle between 13 teams.
"You need to take these opportunities to challenge yourselves against the best. We have a very nice but a very difficult week, but that is why we are in the Barclays Premier League."
Sunderland midfielder Ricky Alvarez could make his first appearance since September.
The Argentina international has been ruled out for over six weeks with a damaged knee but came through training this week and has been named in Poyet's matchday squad.
Defender Sebastian Coates is also set to return to contention following a calf strain but Emanuele Giaccherini (ankle), Billy Jones (hamstring) and Patrick van Aanholt (shoulder) are all still out.
Jose Mourinho has dismissed the possibility of complacency creeping in at Chelsea as the runaway leaders prepare to face the side which inflicted their most recent Barclays Premier League defeat.
Chelsea are six points clear at the top of the table after 12 games and unbeaten in 19 matches in all competitions this season.
Mourinho's side beat Schalke 5-0 on Tuesday night to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League and now travel to Sunderland seeking to consolidate their position at the top of the standings.
It was the Black Cats who ended Mourinho's 77-game unbeaten home Premier League run in April in a bad-tempered meeting which remains Chelsea's most recent domestic defeat.
Some pundits and bookmakers expect Chelsea to romp away with the title, but Mourinho is adamant his squad will not get ahead of themselves.
"Complacency is not a risk we have," Mourinho said.
"It's not a profile of this group in this moment. We have all the other risks. The risks that belong to football - the risk of a bad period, injuries, unlucky matches, other teams growing up and becoming stronger...
"We were winning 5-0 against Schalke and (in) minute 88 Eden Hazard made a sprint to defend.
"There was a clear evolution and I don't think the group as a group can be complacent."
Mourinho denied complacency was a factor in the loss to Sunderland, which prompted an irate response from the Chelsea boss and his assistant Rui Faria, who was issued with a six-match stadium ban for criticising match officials.
He added: "I don't call that complacency. I call that other things. Lots of water passed already under the bridge.
"That match was impossible to win. But we move on."
So scintillating have Chelsea been at times this term that it is difficult for many to see how they can improve.
A link with Barcelona's Lionel Messi circulated on social media this week, but Mourinho dismissed that possibility.
"In this moment it's so easy to have non-truths circulating, it's so easy that some people put news without confirming (it)," Mourinho said.
"Obviously it's not true."
Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard have sparkled this season and been nominated for FIFA's team of the year.
Mourinho values collective honours over individual awards in a hint at the attitude which now prevails at Stamford Bridge.
"I think these kind of trophies are not good for football," Mourinho said.
"Sometimes it looks like we're looking for stars. We're looking for people more important than other people and this is not the culture we want in this club.
"The mentality here is not to be worried with that. And when I see Fabregas and Hazard, I think clearly they don't think about it.
"Clearly they think about the team, playing well and trying to win matches."
Mourinho has no fresh fitness concerns, with only young defender or midfielder Nathan Ake (hamstring) out.
The Blues boss has kept changes to a minimum this season, with his first-choice line-up well established.
But he praised those on the fringes for keeping him on his toes.
"From the ones that are not playing a lot, I don't have one single one that is not training very hard, that is not ready to help," Mourinho added.
"Life is easy when you are playing always and winning and feeling high in yourself esteem. Life is difficult when they are not playing, because a player was born to play.
"All these guys in my squad are for me absolutely fantastic. I'm so happy with them."
And Mourinho expects his side to continue to evolve and improve.
"There is much more to come," Mourinho said.
"We have a lot ahead of us. This team has all the conditions to be better.
"But I'm so experienced in this life that I'm not on the moon when I win, I'm not in hell when I lose. Balance.
"The players follow me in this. We are not jumping every day, we are not crying every day when things go wrong.
"We are very stable."
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.