Chelsea hope Dr Jekyll and not Mr Hyde turns up at Sunderland

Posted by Phil Lythell

Ian Walton/Getty ImagesChelsea's away form this season has been quite frustrating for The Special One.

Chelsea make the long journey to Sunderland on Wednesday with one burning question on the lips of their supporters: which Chelsea team will turn up?

Will it be the skilful, forceful and ruthless side that dominated the second half against Southampton and the entire 90 minutes against West Ham a week earlier? Or will it be the meek, disjointed outfit that surrendered against Basel in the Champions League after having also poked its head apologetically above the parapet in previous weeks against Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion?

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The discrepancy between the two faces of Chelsea is extraordinary as it is alarming. They are capable of one week playing a seductive brand of football that is easy on the eye, while physically imposing for the opposition, only for a disinterested rabble that give the impression of never having seen each other before, let alone played together, to take the field in the very next match.

With a congested fixture period now upon them, consistency becomes all the more valuable and a steady positive rhythm needs to be assumed to ensure that the Blues' title challenge is competitive by the time Big Ben rings in the New Year. That quest should be made easier seeing that their ensuing three opponents in the Premier League -- Sunderland, Stoke City and Crystal Palace -- sit in the bottom five of the table with two of them propping up the rest. With a trip to current leaders Arsenal on the agenda following this upcoming trio of fixtures, the need for maximum points ahead of that London derby is very important especially given that the Gunners' next two games are at the Emirates Stadium where only Aston Villa have stopped them from claiming all three points this season.

With the importance of victory in mind and the quality of opposition not of exceptional calibre, supporters will be praying for the fluidity and dominance of the 3-0 win at Upton Park to re-emerge at the Stadium of Light. Chelsea have not been dependable away from home this season with that win just their second in the league, even if results at Schalke and Arsenal in cup competitions have certainly been impressive. Travel sickness has been a problem that needs to be rectified; positive away form is always a crucial ingredient to becoming champions. The ability to grind out performances in the face of obdurate opposition, a baying crowd and hostile weather conditions is what sorts the wheat from the chaff. There are many great iconic memories from Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea, though none more so than that grittiest of gritty performances: the 1-0 win at Blackburn Rovers in February 2005.

Despite Robbie Savage's gamesmanship, Aaron Mokena's hatchet job on the match-winning Arjen Robben and the elements on that Lancashire evening whipping the atmosphere into a frenzy, Chelsea saw off their opponents to move 11 points clear and make a huge statement to their rivals about their character. On the surface, a win at Ewood Park might seem like a curious event to evoke, though it was probably the moment that most Chelsea fans finally allowed themselves to believe that they might just win the league that season.

Whatever happens at the Stadium of Light, it is unlikely to have such a significant bearing on the psychology of this particular campaign, though it will provide a better perspective on Chelsea's durability. The Black Cats have been galvanised by the ending of Paolo Di Canio's chaotic, divisive reign and no longer have the look of a side doomed before a ball is kicked. Incoming manager Gus Poyet has brought in from the cold some players ostracised by the previous regime and is forging a togetherness that will stand in good stead in their fight against relegation. The Uruguayan will also be keen for his team to acquit themselves well against the club he represented with such distinction as a player.

Poyet was a magnificent servant for Chelsea during the start of Chelsea's recent golden period in the late 1990s; a dominant goalscoring midfielder who provided the prototype for Frank Lampard's extraordinary contributions. He certainly blotted his copybook when he kissed the badge while playing for Tottenham against Chelsea a few years later, and for that a large section of the Blues support has understandably never forgiven him. However, looking back at his contribution at such a vital time for the club, it is tempting to forgive his ill-advised gesture as a momentary lapse of judgement. It was an act reportedly made as a message to those in the Chelsea hierarchy that ushered him out of Stamford Bridge rather than as an insult to the fans that used to vociferously sing his name in West London. Some will never forget his error, though his goals in propelling Chelsea to cup triumphs in England and in Europe should be enough to assuage any lingering resentment among others.

As for the match itself, it would be a surprise if Juan Mata was not given the chance to impress from the start. Mourinho has excused himself from picking the two-time player of the year by stating that he is unable to select him in front of either Eden Hazard or Oscar, though with the latter out of contention with the ankle injury he picked up against Southampton, plus the Spaniard's excellent display on Sunday, there is little cause to leave Mata on the bench. There is an argument for Andre Schurrle to be chosen for his direct running on the counter attack, though with Chelsea likely to return to the 4-3-3 that served them well against the Hammers, the extra space in attack could be better exploited by Mata's ingenuity with the German's talents kept in reserve for the latter stages of the second half.

Another major surprise would be to see Michael Essien retain his place, though with neither John Obi Mikel and Lampard playing the full 90 minutes against the Saints, it is to be expected that they will line up in a three alongside Ramires.

Whatever the make-up of the starting eleven on Wearside, there is only one objective: return to London with all three points. Do that and follow it up with a win at Stoke on Sunday and perhaps Chelsea can build the momentum necessary for a truly festive period.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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