Monday 19 March 2018

Facile Chelsea win fails to ease fans' sense of betrayal

Chelsea 3 Sunderland 1

Chelsea’s Loic Remy and Sunderland’s Billy Jones in action during yesterday’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Adam Davy
Chelsea’s Loic Remy and Sunderland’s Billy Jones in action during yesterday’s Premier League match at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Adam Davy
Chelsea's John Obi Mikel tackles with Sunderland's Adam Johnson. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Chelsea's John Terry applauds fans after the game. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

Dion Fanning

This was Chelsea as Jose Mourinho once imagined it. The game appeared to be won within 12 minutes, the opposition were vulnerable for most of the afternoon and the Chelsea players were able to express themselves when the mood took them.

Yet every triumph was greeted as a betrayal on an extraordinary afternoon. In the second half, as Sunderland came forward and put Chelsea under pressure, there were enough signs that the drift of the past four months was more complex than the supporters' base allegations suggested.

Chelsea's defence creaked and Thibaut Courtois was required to save from Jermain Defoe, while Fabio Borini, who had already scored, went close again. At that stage, Chelsea led 3-1 and there shouldn't have been much to worry about. But this was a team which had only won four league games all season. For all the notions that the players would switch it on as quickly as they had switched it off, football doesn't work like that. In fact, Sunderland were so poor in the first half that even Chelsea's positive start may not have been as straightforward as the angriest home fan imagined when they chanted 'Where were you when we were shit?'

A victory over one of only four teams below Chelsea in the league is hardly an indication that this team has now decided to beat anybody again. "We made it really easy for them," Sam Allardyce said later when he reflected on the first goal.

A few of the Chelsea players appeared to brace themselves as they ran out for the warm-up, but at that stage, all was pleasant. Santa did a lap of the pitch and there was polite applause for the teams, for the news that Dutchman Guus Hiddink was in charge and everything seemed calm. But then the on-field announcer went through the sides again, prefacing them with a comment about these "difficult times" and the jeers for the players began.

There were none for the absent hero Jose Mourinho, of course, but plenty for those players the crowd imagined had betrayed him with their below-par performances. Nothing could interrupt their expressions of loyalty. They were chanting when Willian took a corner after five minutes and they briefly ended it to cheer as Branislav Ivanovic got in front of Sebastian Coates and headed into the top corner.

Chelsea seemed determined to show what they could do, but in the world they were living in that wasn't necessarily a good thing. After 12 minutes, Pedro capitalised on a typical Sunderland error and Chelsea had the kind of lead which Mourinho would have once relished his side defending. Willian, Chelsea's best player this season, was cheered whatever he did, while Oscar crossed with a rabona, as if to say that anything could happen now.

If they move away from the relegation zone as they surely will, the supporters may forget the search for moles, but there will be tougher tests. Even in the first half, there were signs that the defence was weak. Duncan Watmore burst through after a straight ball sailed right over John Terry's head, but with the ever-industrious Defoe looking for a lay-off, Watmore went for goal and slashed over. Unlike in other games this season, Chelsea kept going forward. Willian, Pedro and Fabregas zipped some passes between them, before Costa headed wide.

The second half began with the same purpose. A sweeping move ended with Pedro playing in Willian who was brought down by Costel Pantilimon. Oscar stepped up to take Chelsea's first penalty in the league this season. The game seemed over, but the support for Mourinho endured. When Borini tapped in after a Courtois fumbled, there were some moments of doubt. In the looking-glass world, this was good thing. Chelsea were weak after all and maybe they had been trying all along.

Diego Costa demonstrated his consistency, failing to control the ball in front of goal shortly before he was taken off. There were boos as he left the field, as there had been when Fabregas was substituted, but while Fabregas had kept his head down, Costa looked around the ground as if searching for every accuser.

Pedro missed another chance and in doing so looked more like the player who had arrived from Barcelona, before Courtois saved brilliantly from Defoe.

At the end, John Terry led the players to each stand to acknowledge the supporters, but most of his team-mates were already heading for the tunnel. Mourinho has gone, but who says he doesn't leave a legacy?

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