The Blues did not have to be at their best at Stamford Bridge but still emerged victorious thanks to two fortuitous strikes against the relegation-threatened Black Cats.
In a disappointing affair, all three goals carried an element of fortune to them, with Cesar Azpilicueta’s own goal followed by two deflected strikes in Chelsea’s favor courtesy of Sunderland's Matthew Kilgallon and then Branislav Ivanovic to give the Blues all three points.
With the win and Tottenham's draw with Everton, Chelsea pulled level on points in third place but ahead on goal differential, leaving Arsenal two points behind its London rivals.
Within three minutes, Sunderland almost had a dream start to the Di Canio era, as Stephane Sessegnon found himself in behind Ivanovic, but with Conor Wickham free for a tap-in, the Benin international went for goal himself and could only to find the side netting.
The hosts were certainly not at their sharpest in the opening period, perhaps understandably so given the clash represented their fourth match in only nine games.
On 17 minutes the game burst into life with chances at both ends of the pitch, though. First David Luiz and then Demba Ba were denied by two wonderfully brave blocks by Kilgallon. Then, from the resulting counter-attack, the impressive Sessegnon drove at the heart of Chelsea’s defense before finding the onrushing Adam Johnson with a perfectly rolled pass.
The England international just delayed his shot a touch, though, and that allowed Luiz to snuffle the ball away when the visitors looked more likely to score.
Chelsea may have had the likes of Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata on the pitch, but its attacks were lacking in both inspiration and creativity and it proved no real surprise when Sunderland took the lead on the stroke of halftime.
After Wickham had done well to initially win a corner, Johnson’s delivery was flashed across goal by the head of John O’Shea, and Blues fullback Azpilicueta just could not react in time as he prodded beyond Petr Cech into his own net.
Chelsea was forced into a halftime change, and Fernando Torres, the replacement for Demba Ba, made an immediate impact as the hosts drew level. After jinking past Phil Bardsley, the Spaniard picked out Oscar, who saw his effort blocked by Mignolet, only to hit the unfortunate Kilgallon and trickle agonizingly into the corner of the net.
Within 10 minutes luck deserted the visitors again as Chelsea found itself in front from another scrappy effort.
After Sunderland cleared a corner, Luiz was afforded far too much room to take aim from just outside the box. His effort may have just been heading wide but a lucky intervention via Ivanovic’s heel ensured the ball found its way past Mignolet.