No one took Jose Mourinho seriously when he wrote his side out of the Premier League title race following a defeat to Crystal Palace three weeks ago and his comments appear even more preposterous now. Four wins from their remaining four games and Chelsea will be champions. Admittedly one of those matches is a daunting trip to Anfield, but the other three are eminently winnable.
That is certainly the case with their hosting of Sunderland on Saturday. In his second spell at the helm, Mourinho’s record at Stamford Bridge has been every bit as impressive as his first. His undefeated home streak in charge in the Premier League now stretches to an incredible 78 matches. In 11 games at Stamford Bridge in all competitions in 2014, Chelsea have conceded just once. After some problems earlier in the season, their defense is now settled and more dependable than any other in England.
That backline may be altered slightly on Saturday. Branislav Ivanovic’s suspension for the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday means that Ashley Cole may be given a first start in almost three months in order that he is up to speed in midweek. While Cesar Azpilicueta has been a reliable presence, despite playing out of position, and Cole has looked more vulnerable this season than any other, the potential switch is unlikely to overly hurt Chelsea.
Indeed, the biggest doubt over Chelsea’s prospects of emerging with the required three points against Sunderland comes from the mere presence of the Atletico Madrid clash. Although their results have been near-perfect in matches immediately following their participation in the Champions League, the same cannot be said about their contests preceding their involvement in Europe. Indeed, all five of Chelsea’s losses in the Premier League this season have come the weekend before midweek Champions League fixtures.
It is difficult to decipher a reason for such results. Unlike many managers, Mourinho has not made major changes to his team in a show of favoritism toward continental achievements. Instead it has appeared more a case of his players not being able to raise themselves mentally to the challenge. Mourinho has done an excellent job in his first season, but his current side still does not quite the same ruthlessly efficient ability to scrape results when not on their game as his first Chelsea team did. The absence of a reliable goal-scorer up front and a player to pop up regularly with goals from midfield are key factors in that regard.
Chelsea’s two most recent defeats came against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace sides who were extremely well organized and committed to defending. It is exactly this type of opposition that present a Chelsea side heavily reliant on counter-attacking with the biggest problems.
Sunderland will likely come with a similar game plan on Saturday. Certainly this was the strategy at Anfield recently when manager Gus Poyet even switched to a three-man backline. Still Sunderland could only hold out for 39 minutes against Liverpool. On Wednesday they failed to even make the two-minute mark before having their net rippled by Manchester City.
Their defense has simply not been good enough, as shown by their failure to keep a clean sheet in their past six matches. Going forward Sunderland have not been any better. Not helped by injuries, Steven Fletcher has scored just three times in the Premier League, while their big recruit last summer, Jozy Altidore, has found the net just once. They are records that make Chelsea’s much-derided strikers look positively prolific.
Connor Wickham, who previously had just one Premier League goal in his entire career, did finally show some of the potential that once persuaded Sunderland to pay £8 million, potentially rising to £12m, for the then 18 year old. His two goals late on against Manchester City could well have boosted his confidence considerably. Yet any great lift that they could have given the team in their increasingly forlorn hopes of steering clear of relegation was immediately cancelled out by a terrible error from Vito Mannone which turned a precious three points into a largely unhelpful one. They are unlikely to get any at Stamford Bridge.
Prediction: Chelsea 2-0 Sunderland
Chelsea: Eden Hazard is the only confirmed absentee, with the Belgian’s calf injury also making him a doubt to face Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
Sunderland: Sunderland will again be without the suspended Phil Bardsley, while Steven Fletcher remains sidelined. Midfielders Liam Bridcutt and Ki Sung-Yueng as well as defender Carlos Cuellar are all doubts.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off from Stamford Bridge at 12.30 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBC, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.