Chelsea may have recorded their first win under Rafael Benitez with a resounding 6-1 defeat of FC Nordsjaelland on Wednesday, but the fact that the Blues still crashed out of the Champions League could well mean that an end to the malaise that has descended on Stamford Bridge is not yet in sight.
Dating back to Roberto Di Matteo’s time in charge, Chelsea have now gone an almost unthinkable seven Premier League matches without a victory. Having fallen 10 points behind leaders Manchester United, Benitez will be all too aware that a further slip up away to Sunderland could all but end hopes of an already unlikely title challenge.
“We have to beat Sunderland, and if we can we'll be closer to at least one of the leaders,” Benitez explained in reference to the Manchester derby between the league’s top two on Sunday, according to Chelsea’s official website. “My job is to concentrate on my team and if we can be closer sooner rather than later that would be good. We have a chance as long as we start winning games.
“The last game was very good, you can talk about the level of the other team but it was the Champions League and the level and intensity was fantastic. I watched it again and I was very pleased with the performance. Even at 75 minutes and 85 minutes we were still pushing.”
Chelsea’s need for a victory is also heightened by the fact that they will be jetting off to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan next week and could well be further adrift of the pacesetters when they return.
Captain John Terry has already been ruled out of that trip with a knee injury, although Frank Lampard is back in contention for the visit of Sunderland. Daniel Sturridge will still be missing, however. John Obi Mikel serves the first of a three game ban.
In Sunderland, Chelsea meet one of the few teams on a worse run than their own. Martin O’Neil’s side have taken just six points from the last 27 available and now sit just a single spot above the relegation zone.
There is little doubt where the Wearsiders’ problems have come this season, with only two clubs in the Premier League having scored fewer goals than Sunderland’s total of 13. Summer signing Steven Fletcher has been responsible for six of those goals, but, after a promising start at his new club, the Scottish striker has now scored just once in his last nine matches for the club.
Fletcher could be missing from the lineup that takes on Chelsea as the former Wolves man faces a late fitness test on an ankle problem. Midfielder Lee Cattermole is expected to miss two months with a knee injury, although John O’Shea should be back in contention.
D: Bardsley, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose
M: Larsson, Gardner, Colback, Johnson
D: Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole
M: Ramires, Romeu
Mata, Oscar, Hazard
Prediction: While it ultimately counted for nothing, Chelsea’s emphatic midweek victory cannot do the morale of the side any harm. Serious problems still remain with the Blues, but a trip to the Stadium of Light currently looks to be an ideal place for Benitez to try and pick up his first Premier League victory since taking charge.
Sunderland 0-2 Chelsea
Where to watch: The Premier League match kicks-off at 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN2, with a live stream available on ESPN3.