Saturday’s contest between Chelsea and Sunderland will now have a very different feel to it after events in the past 36 hours. Already the contest had a surreal feel, with it being a most improbable of relegation battles. Chelsea, the current Premier League champions, sit just a single point above the relegation zone and within three points of second-bottom Sunderland. A victory for the north-east side at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea could well find themselves in the relegation zone.
But rather than the match being another test of just how far Jose Mourinho’s reign could sink, Saturday’s match will now be an opportunity to see how his squad will react to his departure. On Thursday the axe finally fell on Mourinho, three days after Leicester City inflicted Chelsea's ninth Premier League defeat of a season that has also been blighted by controversy.
What has been obvious on the pitch for a number of weeks was certainly not shied away from by the official charged with explaining the decision to the club’s supporters. Technical director Michael Emenalo stated on Chelsea’s in-house television station that there had been a “palpable discord between manager and players.”
It is common for there to be an immediate upturn in fortunes for a team upon a change in manager. In Chelsea’s case, when the relationship between players and manager was evidently so toxic, that could be true to an even greater extent. Certainly Chelsea, through Emenalo, have provided their full backing to the players, as the ones left with the task to turn around the team’s ailing fortunes.
And in Guus Hiddink they look set to appoint a manger who very much favors the arm-round-the-shoulder approach to elicit the best from his squad. Hiddink was in negotiations with Chelsea on Friday and expected to be appointed as manager until the end of the season. However, it is very unlikely he will be the man calling the shots at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Indeed, the veteran Dutch coach, who fulfilled a similar rescue job for Chelsea in 2009, has said that he expects to be at the game only in a watching brief. That would likely leave Steve Holland, as assistant to Mourinho, and long-time club coach Eddie Newton to take charge.
On Saturday, Chelsea will be going up against a club that knows plenty about managerial changes. Sunderland are onto their fifth manager in three years, having seen it become an annual trend to dispense with a manager when in desperate relegation trouble, miraculously escape and then repeat the cycle all over again.
This time they have turned a renowned safe pair of hands, and a manager who has never experienced relegation from the Premier League. Sam Allardyce brought some initial optimism to the Stadium of Light, particularly after back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Stoke City last month. But defeats in the last two matches, against Arsenal and Watford, have kept them deep in relegation trouble. Still, he is targeting a win and continuing Chelsea’s tumultuous season on Saturday.
“The encouraging thing is that Bournemouth have just beaten Manchester United and Chelsea and Newcastle United have beaten Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur,” he said, according to Sunderland’s official website. “On the basis of that if we go and play our very best on the day and the opposition aren’t on song then you can get a result in the Premier League and that’s what makes it so interesting across the world.
“Our job on Saturday is to try and continue that cloud they are under at the moment and try and make that cloud bigger and try and get a result and not give them anything if we possibly can.”
Sunderland will be without midfielders Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson through injury, although defender Younes Kaboul could be back available. For Chelsea, the main fitness doubt is over Eden Hazard, whose injury against Leicester City and his decision to rule himself out of continuing led to some pointed remarks from Mourinho in his final post-match interview.
Prediction: There is huge intrigue surrounding this fixture. There should be a positive reaction from the Chelsea players, but much could depend on how the supporters will respond. A large percentage of them still worship Mourinho and have reacted angrily to his dismissal and the way he was thrown under the bus by Emenalo. Will the supporters get on the back of players who are thought to have played such a prominent role in Mourinho’s downfall? It could certainly lead to a tense atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. Sunderland will travel there aiming not to give anything away and to worsen the atmosphere at the stadium yet further. But the freedom from Mourinho’s departure could still be enough to give Chelsea a narrow win.
Predicted score: Chelsea 2-1 Sunderland
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra