Both clubs have seen upheaval on and off the pitch since Nedum Onuoha, Asamoah Gyan & Danny Welbeck secured a famous win for the Wearsiders in west London last season
By Rob Stewart & Liam Twomey
New managers, capitulations on the pitch and unrest off it; what a year it has been for both Chelsea and Sunderland, or a year and two months to be a little more precise.
When the sides come together on Saturday it will be their first meeting at Stamford Bridge since what was arguably the most astonishing result of the entire 2010-11 campaign, as the visitors, then under Steve Bruce, made a mockery of the Premier League title-holders with a 3-0 win to provide a bolt to the Blues in November 2010.
There's a case to be made that it was a shock from which both clubs are still feeling the reverberations. Carlo Ancelotti has since left Chelsea in the harshest of circumstances, allegedly cast aside in a Goodison Park corridor on the last day of the season while the likes of Juan Mata, David Luiz and Fernando Torres have arrived at the club with varying degrees of success.
Sunderland meanwhile have seen changes from boardoom to starting XI, with Niall Quinn resigning as club chairman, Steve Bruce sacked earlier this term and the likes of Darren Bent, Jordan Henderson and Asamoah Gyan all leaving for pastures new, albeit the latter on a temporary basis.
But has it been annus horribilis or just 14 months of slow, and sometimes painful transition?
Even by the standards of the club’s tempestuous recent history, the 14 months since Sunderland’s shock 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge have seen seismic changes at Chelsea.
The Black Cats arrived in west London in November 2010 to take on opponents four points clear at the top of the Premier League after a blistering start to the campaign.
The ruthless dismissal of assistant boss Ray Wilkins three days prior to the match had removed some gloss from the Blues’ fine early form, but few believed the decision would have any significant or lasting consequences on the field.
The humiliation which followed, however, heralded the beginning of a three-month slump which fatally undermined the hopes Ancelotti’s men harboured of retaining the Premier League title, and posed serious questions about their Champions League aspirations.
Hoping to shatter the perception of Chelsea as a team in terminal decline, owner Roman Abramovich bankrolled a £75 million spending spree on January transfer deadline day – splashing out £25m to bring in mercurial Benfica defender Luiz and, infamously, lavishing a whopping £50m on disillusioned Liverpool striker Torres.
Neither flourished as the Blues continued to flounder. A revival of results, not of form, briefly renewed hopes of possible Premier League or Champions League glory, but a trio of limp performances against a swashbuckling Manchester United side ensured the season would be remembered as one of failure at home and abroad.
|14 NOVEMBER 2010*|
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Abramovich’s discontent was quick to surface, with Ancelotti sacked barely an hour after final day defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. After a prolonged flirtation with Guus Hiddink, Abramovich chose Andre Villas-Boas to replace the Italian. The Portuguese could only boast one full season of top level management, but what a season.
Having won a treble and re-written the record books playing a brand of vibrant attacking football with Porto, this was the man Abramovich believed capable of re-moulding an ageing Chelsea squad into something equally efficient but easier on the eye.
Given a remit for change, this season Villas-Boas initially promoted revolution rather than evolution at Stamford Bridge, with decidedly mixed results. The ‘New Chelsea’ are undeniably more exciting to watch, but this observation is both praise and criticism.
Villas-Boas’ focus on rapid passing football has often thrilled neutrals and seen the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata and Ramires emerge as genuine match-winners. On the other hand, the Portuguese’s insistence on adopting a high defensive line has left the team worryingly and, at times, comically vulnerable.
Off the field, the Blues boss’s perceived tactical idealism and aloof managerial style have led to clashes with senior players, and mean the club’s bid for a top-four finish takes place amid a dressing room power struggle. Villas-Boas is a man with big ideas for the future, yet he remains constrained by the demands of the present.
The high line, ill-suited to Chelsea’s current personnel, has been ditched. Frank Lampard has been recalled while misfiring Fernando Torres has become re-acquainted with the bench. The boss is realizing he cannot afford to experiment at the expense of Champions League football next season.
And it is these demands of the present which mean Chelsea will have more than revenge on their minds when they welcome Sunderland back to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
They have become used to false dawns at Sunderland and their first win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a decade was in keeping with the club’s habit of flattering to deceive since the Premier League was founded.
It was the highlight of Bruce’s ill-fated reign in charge of the Black Cats and should have been the start of something special on Wearside as the darkness of that 5-1 humiliation against hated rivals Newcastle United was followed by a warm glow of light in memorable style in west London.
It should have been the start of something good at Sunderland, and superficially things looked promising because surely if they could beat Chelsea in their own backyard they could beat anyone.
However, beneath the veneer of well-being there were deep-lying problems.
It was significant that Bent was absent when they beat Chelsea because the former Tottenham striker and Gyan never hit it off as co-strikers and the Ghanaian produced one of his best displays and scored without him.
It was also notable that the two other scorers that day in the shape of Nedum Onuoha and Danny Welbeck were players who had been loaned to Sunderland by Manchester City and Manchester United, respectively.
The mix-and-match policy was hardly a strategy that would create the stability that then chairman Niall Quinn yearned for, but ironically that proved to be responsible for the best thing that could have happened to Sunderland a year later.
The results that followed raised hopes that Bruce might be able to bring European football to the Stadium of Light but a disillusioned Bent submitted a transfer request to force through a club-record £24-million move to Aston Villa in the January transfer window.
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Sunderland seemed able to cope without their leading goalscorer as they secured a win at Blackpool without their former talisman but their fortunes dipped dramatically and the club ended up in a relegation scrap.
After a summer of upheaval that saw Sunderland sell prized asset Henderson to Liverpool in a £16-million deal and Bruce sign a dozen new players, the opening day of the season brought - typically - an encouraging draw at Liverpool but then things went from bad to worse for the Black Cats.
A home defeat by Newcastle next time out was the beginning of the end for the Geordie who was finally put out of his misery by club owner Ellis Short amid a vicious fans’ backlash following a 2-1 defeat by Wigan.
Sunderland looked doomed but then Short pulled a rabbit out of the hat by doing what Quinn had failed to do beforehand when Roy Keane took the managerial reins by persuading Martin O’Neill to lead the club.
Now, following four league wins including a dramatic victory over Manchester City, Sunderland fans are more bullish than ever as they head back to Chelsea, but that is down to O’Neill’s motivational expertise rather than the quality of the players at his disposal.
At the moment they are playing above themselves. That probably won’t last and another summer of upheaval awaits Sunderland fans who will be forgiven for thinking they have seen it all before.
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