Like a fine pint of wine, Sam Allardyce just got better and better as time went on at Sunderland.
After a slow, and in some cases dull, start the team was galvanised by the January arrivals of Kone, Kirchoff, Khazri and... Dame N’Doye.
After a defeat at home to Manchester City in early February, we lost only two more games - away to Big Sam’s former employer West Ham and at home to champions-elect Leicester. Wins over Manchester United and, crucially, Norwich had only punctuated an 11 game run that included seven draws heading into our final three fixtures.
Were we tougher to beat? Certainly. And the team had an increasing swagger, going toe-to-toe with the Premier League’s best, and more often than not standing up to the challenge.
But for a while, however, it looked like it could be too little, too late.
Heading into the fixture against Chelsea, we were lying in 18th place. In fact, we’d only been out of the bottom three at the end of four match days. But with home games against Chelsea and Everton lying in wait, hope still remained.
With a game in hand, we were a point behind Newcastle, who had Aston Villa away and Spurs at home to play.
Backed by a bumper Stadium of Light crowd of 47,050, Sunderland started the game with ambition – given the circumstances, anything less would have been concerning – and in the first minute Defoe was pulled back by Cahill when bearing down on goal. On another day it could have been a red, but with John Terry in close enough proximity referee Mike Jones, he of the beachball fame, decided a yellow would suffice.
We’d had a warning a few moments earlier, Willan shooting low, easily saved by Mannone –but Chelsea bundled their way through the right side of our defence; Yedlin should have done more, and he let Costa through to open the scoring.
It was one of those all-action, end-to-end games that football’s ultimately all about, and Defoe hit the post from Cattermole’s ball in, although a very tight offside flag would have ruled out an equaliser in any case.
Yedlin had an opportunity to make amends, heading straight at Courtois after Defoe’s lovely ball in, but the equaliser did arrive – and in what style!
A game of head tennis on the edge of the box followed van Aanholt’s free kick, and Khazri volleyed in from the edge of the box.
In true Sunderland fashion, however, the lead didn’t last for long. In the third minute of three minutes of added time, sloppy defending put Matic through and, played onside by van Aanholt the midfielder slotted home.
As far as second halves go, the 45 minutes that followed were some of the Stadium of Light’s best.
It was thanks, in part, to Vito Mannone, who pulled off a couple of great saves to prevent Chelsea from going 3-1 up. And, midway through the second half, Fabio Borini netted a well-deserved equaliser. M’Vila played in van Aanholt down the left, and the Dutchman picked out Fabio on the edge of the box, who hit a low drive past Courtois. In truth, the keeper should have done better, but we didn’t care one iota, and neither did Borini.
2-2 turned to 3-2 moments later.
Roared on by the crowd, Sunderland turned the screw. Brilliant work by Yedlin down the right saw the ball eventually arrive at the feet of Defoe, who swiveled and fired the ball past Courtois to net his 15th of the season. This time the keeper had no chance.
Mannone saved well from Willan as Chelsea searched for an equaliser, a search that was to no avail.
To put the icing on top of a huge, delicious cake, the loathsome John Terry was shown two yellows in the space of three minutes. the second coming moments before the final whistle sparked scenes of jubilation.
Newcastle’s draw at Villa meant we needed one win to be certain of safety – and with Everton to play during the following midweek, hopes of survival were, justifiably, high.
What a day.
After the game, Big Sam paid tribute to the supporters and commented on the difference the crowd made to the team.
The supporters took the roof off today. I think that atmosphere is what makes players play well and the atmosphere here today enthused the players to go out and give us their all. It got the hairs on the back of the neck standing up and that allows them to go and perform as they did today.
Sunderland: Mannone, Yedlin, Kone (O’Shea 55), Kaboul, van Aanholt, Borini, M’Vila, Kirchoff (Watmore 64), Cattermole (Larsson 71), Khazri, Defoe. Subs not used: Pickford, Rodwell, Lens, N’Doye.
Chelsea: Courtois, Ivanovic (Rahman 68), Azpilicueta, Mikel (Traore 83), Cahill, Terry, Willian (Oscar), Matic, Costa, Fabregas, Hazard, Subs: Begovic, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Pato.