Reigning champions Chelsea were top of the league – 28 points from their first 12 games of the season and five points ahead of second placed Arsenal.
Under Carlo Ancelotti, the Blues were in formidable form – they’d opened the season off with back-to-back 6-0 victories (at home to West Brom and away at Wigan) and had convincingly brushed aside Stoke, Blackpool, Arsenal, Wolves and Fulham at Stamford Bridge, too. They’d scored 17 goals at home in six league games so far, conceding a grand total of zero.
They’d ended the previous season with a 7-1 home win over Villa, a 7-0 win over Stoke and a 8-0 victory over Wigan – as well as a 1-0 win over Bolton – in their final four home games of the season.
You had to go back to that 7-1 game against Villa at the end of March to find the last time Chelsea had conceded a goal at home – John Carew’s strike the only time Petr Cech’s goal had been breached in more than six months.
The task facing Steve Bruce’s men was enormous. In the eyes of the bookies, it was a sure-fire home banker.
However, we had a good team at this point – Steve Bruce had done a cracking job in his first season, transforming a team that had avoided relegation on the last day of the season into one that looked genuinely capable of challenging for a European place.
A typical Bruce streak of poor results in the latter half of the season had dampened expectations somewhat, however the following campaign had started solidly, if unspectacularly. Apart from one horrendous afternoon at St James’ Park, we’d looked pretty robust – as seven draws and three wins from the first 12 games suggests. We’d kept five clean sheets and had only conceded more than one on three occasions – and a 1-1 midweek draw with Spurs had renewed our confidence on the road, while Jordan Henderson had just been called up to the England squad for the first time.
Regardless of that, however, this looked like a straightforward damage limitation exercise – particularly given that the 5-1 halloween defeat was still very fresh in our memories and we were without our injured talisman Darren Bent.
Despite things going well on the pitch for Chelsea, however, not all was well off it. Popular coach Ray Wilkins had been unceremoniously axed, which had caused some discontent amongst the playing staff.
In his programme notes, John Terry – who missed the fixture through injury – said:
It was an unexpected decision but we have to move on and stay calm. Ray was a great person to have around the football club. He would pick you up when you were down and, if there was a problem for any players or staff, he would be the first one to call them to make sure everything was OK and to ask if there was any way he could help. And all that came alongside his knowledge and coaching ability on the football field.
In addition to Terry, Chelsea were also without Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, and Alex – and had a bench that included five youngsters, including the 20-year-old Patrick Van Aanholt.
Chelsea: Cech, Bosingwa, Cole, Mikel, Ivanovic, Ferreira, Ramires, Zhirkov, Drogba, Anelka, Malouda. Subs: Turnbull, van Aanholt, Bruma, McEachran, Saia, Kalou, Kakuta.
Sunderland: Gordon, Onuoha, Bardsley, Cattermole, Turner, Bramble, Richardson, Henderson, Gyan, Welbeck, Zenden. Subs: Mignolet, Angeleri, Adams, Da Silva, Riveros, Elmohamady, Malbranque.
In the opening stages, it looked like the game would go the way everyone expected. Craig Gordon, who’d recently returned from injury, did well early on to come out and smother an Anelka chance, before Zhirkov fired wide after dribbling through the defence. Ivanovic headed over from a corner, while a 20 yard header from Ramires was just claimed under the bar by Gordon.
Rather than sit back and hope for the best, however, Sunderland took the game to the home side – Cech pulling off a superb save from a Welbeck header following Onouha’s cross – and from the resultant corner Kieran Richardson fired just wide.
Ivanovic was lucky not to see red for a challenge on Welbeck, who was playing up front after primarily being deployed on the left during his fledgling Sunderland career. The Manchester United loanee forced another save from Cech after being set up by a great Gyan through ball, before the keeper pulled off another double save, this time from Welbeck and then Richardson.
As the ball was cleared however, it fell to Onuoha about 35 yards out – and with the defence proverbially parting like the Red Sea, he danced through and rolled the ball past Cech – 1-0 to Sunderland, and no one could complain.
While many were expecting a second half onslaught from Chelsea, it didn’t come. In fact, Sunderland got better.
Gyan added a second after being set up by a Henderson throughball after good work from Welbeck and Zenden – cue Bolo’s dad dancing. The lads came close to extending the lead before Ashley Cole’s awful back pass – under pressure from Richardson – set up Welbeck for a simple goal.
And all was right with the world once more...