The Blues were not at their best at Stamford Bridge but still emerged victorious thanks to two fortuitous second-half strikes against the relegation-threatened Black Cats
In a disappointing affair, all three goals carried an element of fortune, with Cesar Azpilicueta’s own goal followed by another own goal from Sunderland's Matthew Kilgallon before Branislav Ivanovic redirected David Luiz's shot to secure all three points.
Chelsea made five changes to the team that dispatched Rubin Kazan in the Europa League in midweek while Di Canio’s maiden team selection saw Kilgallon, Sebastien Larsson and Conor Wickham all come in.
Within three minutes, Sunderland almost had a dream start as Stephane Sessegnon found himself in behind Ivanovic but with Wickham free for a tap-in, the Benin international went for goal himself and could only 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 days.
However, on 17 minutes the game burst into life with chances at both ends of the pitch. First, Luiz and then Demba Ba were denied by two wonderfully brave blocks by Kilgallon.
Then, from the resulting counterattack, the impressive Sessegnon drove at the heart of Chelsea’s defence before finding the onrushing Adam Johnson with a perfectly rolled pass. The England international delayed his shot, however, and that allowed Luiz to sweep the ball away from danger.
Chelsea may have had the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata on the pitch but their attacks were lacking in both inspiration and creativity and it proved no real surprise when Sunderland took the lead on the stroke of half-time.
After Wickham had done well to win a corner, Johnson’s perfect delivery was flashed across goal by the head of John O’Shea and Blues full-back Azpilicueta could not react quickly enough to prevent himself prodding the ball beyond Petr Cech into his own net.
Chelsea were forced into a half-time change and Fernando Torres, the replacement for 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 goalkeeper Simon Mignolet before it hit the unfortunate Kilgallon and trickled agonisingly into the corner of the net.
Within 10 minutes luck deserted the visitors again as Chelsea found themselves 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 by Ivanovic ensured the ball found its way past Mignolet off the Serbian's heel.
From then on, for all of Di Canio’s bluster on the touchline, the visitors appeared to lose confidence and in a poor end to the game, Chelsea could have scored a third when some enterprising passing from Mata and Oscar saw the latter dig out a cross that Torres could only head over the bar.