Chelsea grind out vital win over Sunderland

Posted by Phil Lythell

At the end of what has been a draining week, everyone connected to Chelsea can look back at the 2-1 win over Sunderland as mission accomplished. With four games scheduled over the past nine days, and the start of that run beginning in the worst possible way with defeat at Southampton, emerging with the victory was all that mattered.

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The three points were essential given the results that occurred elsewhere. Arsenal's traditional late-season surge had seen them overtake the Blues and earn a brief foothold in the top four after their win at West Bromwich Albion, but events at Stamford Bridge have pushed them back down to fifth. At White Hart Lane, the 2-2 draw between Tottenham and Everton allowed Chelsea to reel in Andre Villas-Boas' team as well while also further stretching the gap between them and the Toffees, who still retain ambitions of Champions League football next season.

Substance over style was the order of the day, and it was successfully achieved even if the match was far from comfortable. The new-manager effect saw Sunderland take the field with added motivation, determined to make an impression on their controversial gaffer, Paolo Di Canio. The Black Cats kept a very good shape throughout the match and made themselves very difficult to break down, though they were also able to offer a credible threat going forward despite the absence of the injured Steven Fletcher and the benched Danny Graham.

Sunderland were set up to exploit Chelsea's lethargy, which was inevitable given the grueling fixture list that they have had to endure throughout the entire campaign, never mind the last week or so. There was little snap in the home side's play and there was a distinct lack of energy. It is hard to criticize the players too much when the demands upon them have been so relentless, yet there were still some causes for concern.

The team was understandably feeling the effects of their physical exertions, though it was their sluggishness of thought that was often the biggest threat to attaining victory. There were several occasions when an extra touch was taken when a sharper option was available, and openings were spurned as a result. It is hoped that the mental deficiency is merely the product of tiredness and that batteries can be amply restored during what is a quieter week ahead, even if there is still the small matter of a trip to Russia to take on Rubin Kazan on Thursday.

More worrying is the drop off in quality in the team's passing. It was evident for the whole 90 minutes against Southampton and resulted in Chelsea being unable to gain any momentum in the game. The failing was repeated in the first half against Manchester United, though thankfully they emerged after halftime reacquainted with their ability and deservedly won the match. Sunderland were the latest recipients of Chelsea's sloppiness, and this inaccuracy could quite easily have cost the Blues victory.

There was also a distinct feeling of panic when the Blues had the ball at their feet in their own half toward the end of the match. The absence of any composure was probably the reason that Frank Lampard came on as a late substitute, though much of the hurried and desperate balls were being played by centre backs David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic.

For once, not one of the "Three Amigos" could find any rhythm in their play. Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar were all unnaturally subdued and they lacked the spark that could have ended the game as a contest and prevented the fraying of supporters' nerves in the closing stages.

Thankfully, Fernando Torres put in a display that will warm the cockles. Coming on as a halftime substitute for Demba Ba, Torres put in another decisive display -- his second in four days -- that was the difference between one point and three. The Spaniard has had people queuing up to criticise him this season -- this blog included -- but he appears to be finding form at a crucial stage. Of course, hopes have been raised before, though rarely has he managed to string two games together of equal effectiveness. As the club arrives at the business end of the season, it would be the perfect time for Torres to mine a rich vein of form.

Chelsea now have a small break from the Premier League as the Europa League and FA Cup take centre stage, and by the time they return to action against Fulham on April 17, they are likely to be sitting behind Arsenal once again, due to the Gunners' expected home victory over Norwich in the interim.

Every point is precious, hence why the result last weekend at St Mary's was so disappointing, though equally it highlights why the win over Sunderland was so imperative. The display might not win too many plaudits from neutral observers, but seven more results like that and Champions League football will be on the menu next season.

Let the grind continue.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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