|photo by SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent)
It's the Black Cats calling on Chelsea at fortress Stamford Bridge today, and let's hope the feline they resemble most is a hungry panther rather than a milk-fed kitten. In addition to the game, the eyes of United fans will be focused on the performances of on-loan striker Danny Welbeck, whose spending the season with the Black Cats, as well as Sunderland's 20 year-old box-to-box midfielder Jordan Henderson, whom coach Steve Bruce has recently confirmed he's spoken about with none other than United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Whether or not he ultimately moves to United remains to be seen, but there's no denying the homegrown Henderson has been one of Sunderland's bright spots to this point in the season.
Chelsea are missing Terry, Alex and long-term absentee Lampard to various knocks and bruises, and Essien to a a red card suspension, but still manage to easily dominate possession at home in the early going. Sunderland are minus striker Darren Bent, and it'll be up to Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan to provide the offensive muscle for the visitors.
Chelsea knock the ball around the pitch early on, probing for weaknesses to exploit. Sunderland respond with several brief forays into the Chelsea defensive zone, looking to take advantage of the Blue's makeshift back four and become the first away side to pierce the Chelsea net. In truth, neither side really gets much going in the game's first fifteen minutes, as the game searches for a storyline.
The first real opportunity of the day falls to Nicolas Anelka, as he races to a long through ball but is narrowly beaten out by Craig Gordon, Anelka sprawling head over heels after colliding with the Sunderland 'keeper. A minute later and it's Yuri Zhirkov carrying the ball unchecked into the 18 yard box before needlessly rushing his shot wide of the mark. The corners quickly begin to pile up as Chelsea turn up the pressure twenty minutes in, and Sunderland need to respond before the Blues can cash in.
We're a half hour into the match before I spot Danny Welbeck on the pitch, and that says all you need to know about how the first 30 minutes of the match have gone for Sunderland. But it's at that moment that Welbeck, playing now like a man possessed, chooses to shine and the Sunderland offense comes alive for the first time all night.
Chelsea goalie Petr Cech is called into action to deny a Welbeck header, and a minute later Asamoah Gyan misses an short toe poke attempt at redirecting a Bolo Zenden shot into the Chelsea net. When Welbeck again tests Cech, it's three good opportunities for Sunderland in quick succession, and easily their best spell of the match. Unfortunately, when it finishes the scoreline is still knotted at nil.
Shortly before halftime referee Chris Foy stamps his mark on the game with a controversial decision, as Welbeck is once more sprung free against a high line Chelsea defense with only a clear goal scoring opportunity lying ahead of him. When he's tripped by Branislav Ivanovic the Stamford Bridge crowd holds its collective breath, but the exhalation is loud and apparent when Foy shows the resulting card to be yellow and not red. The decision is not viewed favorably by the visitors, and it keeps all 11 Chelsea men on the pitch as well as the scoreline level, as the resulting free kick amounts to nothing.
Sunderland rightfully claim their goal a short time later, though, when the mellifluously named Nedum Onuoha slaloms through the entire Chelsea defense before pushing a slow roller past Cech. It's the softest shot of the night, but with Cech lying prostrate on the ground there's little he can do but watch it settle in the back of the net, as Chelsea's makeshift line has been exposed not for the first time tonight. It's a shock 1-nil lead just before the half, but based on the events of the past 15 minutes the advantage is well deserved.
Miraculously, Sunderland double their lead a short six minutes after the break, and once again it's Welbeck picking out Jordan Henderson in open space to set up the goal. After Henderson slots the ball once more through a swiss cheese Chelsea back line and picks out a crazily open Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanaian curls the ball around Cech and into the net for a 2-nil advantage.
The Czech international must be tempted at this point to look at the credentials of the men in front of him to see if they are impostors, as Chelsea's run of nine straight home shutouts has been brushed aside like yesterday's news. The defense has been found wanting and exposed both for depth and pace tonight, as it's repeatedly beaten like Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed by both Welbeck and Gyan.
Chelsea respond with the introduction of Solomon Kalou for Florent Malouda on 58 minutes, the Frenchman swapped for the Ivorian as the champions find themselves in the strange position of chasing a game at home. The crowd lustily boo the switch, disappointed to see one of their best offensive players walk off the pitch.
Welbeck continues to terrorize Chelsea's defenders, who by now must be tired of seeing the back of his jersey, and spend their brief respites bickering amongst themselves in a show of frustration. At the other end of the pitch, the Blues struggle to create even the merest whiffs of offense. Chelsea look strangely at sea today, and one has to wonder if the strange and unexpected mid-week dismissal of assistant coach Ray Wilkins is not weighing heavily on the players' minds.
Chelsea's surprising lack of depth this evening is further exposed as Ramires is hauled off the pitch for 17 year-old Josh McEachren near the 70 minute mark, with Carlo Ancelotti clearly hoping the Harry Potter look-alike can wave his magic wand and change the scorline. The youth parade is continued with the introduction of Gael Kakuta for Yuri Zhirkov, and it now appears clear that Ancelotti is more intent on providing the younger members of the squad with playing time than finding a way to win the game.
Gyan is substituted by the visitors after cramping, with the equine-like Steed Malbranque riding to the rescue as the visitors attempt to close out the game. Before they can sit back and defend, though, Ashley Cole makes a horrible gaffe under pressure from Kieran Richardson, offering a short pass in the general direction of Petr Cech which is picked off by Welbeck, who makes no mistake in burying it past the Chelsea goalie. It's well deserved for the United and Sunderland frontman based on his effort throughout the match, and it's a shock 3-nil scoreline that will have non-viewers of the match checking their eyeglass prescriptions when reading the news.
There's been a shutout at the Bridge tonight, but it's not one the 25,000 fans remaing at game's end expected to see. Miraculously it's 3-nil Sunderland, and it's farlieonfootie wondering on November 16 how quickly we can get Danny Welbeck back to Old Trafford.