Sunderland's trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday was never likely to see a repeat of the heroic 3-0 victory they achieved there last season - even taking into account the much lauded 'Martin O'Neill factor'. That said, following their recent run of form, the Black Cats could be forgiven for hoping for another unexpected victory. As it was, they left on the end of a 0-1 scoreline. However, such a result didn't tell the whole story - the visitors performed valiantly, and had numerous good opportunities to steal a point.
O'Neill opted for a similar line-up to the one that defeated Peterborough in the FA Cup last week, making just a single change. Craig Gardner, rumoured to be unsettled on Wearside, dropped to the bench, with Nicklas Bendtner returning to the starting XI.
As a result, Sunderland took on a 4-4-1-1-like formation. However, with it already clear that Bendtner is not suited as a 'leading-the-line'-type striker, O'Neill allowed him and Sessegnon to effectively interchange with one another. Often one or the other would pop up in wide areas, seeking to drag out Chelsea's central defenders David Luiz and John Terry - a pair who have not been renowned for their positioning over recent months.
Just as in recent games, Sunderland expected to relinquish hefty amounts of possession - and were fairly comfortable with doing so. Chelsea ended the game with their possession figures on 60%, yet it is notable that they did not create a huge amount from this.
True, the Blues had 25 shots on the Sunderland goal - but a mere seven of those were actually on target. Many home fans may well have rued the profligacy of their side - despite this, Fernando Torres had an excellent game - but it remained an unconvincing performance from the Stamford Bridge outfit.
Much of this was down to how the visitors immediately went very narrow in defensive areas when without the ball.
Phil Bardsley received criticism for his role in the game's only goal (rightly so, as he allowed Torres to peel off him far too easily at the back post), but for the most part his and Kieran Richardson's shape was excellent on Saturday. They each reverted to positions in line with the corners of the eighteen-yard-box, welcoming wingers James McClean and Seb Larsson to join the defence in wider areas (a point this column has already remarked on recently).
In the first half, the home side notably targeted Bardsley by attacking down the left-side, looking to utilise the tricky Juan Mata. However, aided by the hard working Larsson, Bardsley performed well - he was successful with 80% of his challenges, as well as contributing three interceptions (one-fifth of Sunderland's total).
Indeed neither Mata, Raul Meireles, nor Ramires, each of whom looked to get into wide areas regularly, completed many successful balls into the Sunderland area. Any time they did manage to find a way past the 'doubling up' defensive effort on either wing, central defenders John O'Shea, Matthew Kilgallon, or Kilgallon's replacement after the break - Michael Turner - proved adept at clearing up any trouble. The Blues' most potent threat from any area, including wide ones, came in the shape of Torres. He cut inside on occasion and looked threatening, particularly when he saw two valid penalty shouts go unanswered in the second half.
And going forward?
Sunderland only mustered nine shots on Petr Cech's goal, a figure which looks small in comparison to their host's tally. Yet, in contrast to Andre Villas-Boas' side, following Frank Lampard's 13th minute goal, it was O'Neill's men that found themselves presented with the most gilt-edged of chances. James McClean, Craig Gardner and Nicklas Bendtner should all have troubled the scoresheet, or at least Petr Cech, and the Blues went home feeling rather fortunate about their three-point haul.
In what is now undoubtedly a recurring theme, much of Sunderland's attacking threat came from moves on the counter. James McClean, it must be said, seemed to freeze somewhat. The young Irishman looked hesitant in the opening half, and gave the ball away on a few occasions. Despite that, he never hid, and in the second half he once again looked like a direct attacking threat, up against the experienced Bosingwa. Despite twice spurning opportunities in the Chelsea box, the fact he continued to find such good positions can only be a good thing for the red and whites.
Undoubtedly Sunderland's star performer was Stephane Sessegnon. Successful in over 90% of his passes (28 out of 31 attempted), 60% of his challenges (6 out of 10), not to mention showing England's premier left-back a clean pair of heels, the Benin international was a particularly bright spark for the visitors. His incisive play and jinking runs opened up a Chelsea defence that was not without its holes, and, supported by onrushing midfielders, he was denied reward for his efforts only by the wastefulness of his teammates.
Despite Chelsea being denied two penalties that should have been given, many a Blue would be hard-pressed to deny that the visitors deserved a point on Saturday. Sunderland looked assured at the back for the most part, and created a wealth of chances when going forward.
The Blues' superior midfield talents were largely matched by the Black Cats, with Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan again putting in impressive displays in the middle of the park. Cattermole found himself booked, having displayed the old recklessness that has otherwise been eradicated under the new manager. To his credit, the captain was able to regain his composure immediately afterwards.
What O'Neill must look for now - permanent or on loan - is an out and out striker. Nicklas Bendtner comes in for much criticism both on Wearside and nationally, but close observers of the game will note that his off the ball work in fact opens up space for his fellow red and whites. Problematically though, he is not an out and out goalscorer, nor is he the type of striker who can play on the shoulder of the last man and truly lead the line - he spends much too long out in wide areas for that. Should O'Neill secure himself a player in the necessary style before the end of January, Sunderland's recent climb up the table could be continued with renewed enthusiasm.