Fabio Borini may have been deemed surplus to requirements at Liverpool this season but he could well have scored one of the defining goals on their way to claiming the Premier League title. The Italian slotted home a penalty with eight minutes remaining at Stamford Bridge to hand Sunderland a vital win in their battle to avoid the drop, Jose Mourinho his first home defeat in the Premier League, and his parent club some potentially defining breathing room at the top of the Premier League.
Manchester City’s 2-2 draw with Sunderland had opened the door for Chelsea, who went into their final four games in the knowledge that a 100 percent record would crown them champions. And when Samuel Eto’o volleyed home a corner early on following some woeful Sunderland defending, a comfortable afternoon looked in store ahead of the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
But an error from Mark Schwarzer, making his first Premier League start for the club in place of an unwell Petr Cech, gifted Connor Wickham to chance to put Sunderland level just six minutes later. And the striker, who scored his only previous Premier League goals this season against City, did Liverpool another massive favor by finishing from close range.
A Chelsea side missing the creativity of Eden Hazard and again lacking a lethal presence in attack struggled painfully to break down a stubborn, disciplined performance from Sunderland. And with the minutes ticking away some sloppy play from Cesar Azpilicueta gave Jozy Altidore the chance to drive in the box before the Spanish pull-back caught down the leg of his opponent as he went to ground in a desperate attempt to atone for his mistake. Borini did the rest from the spot against the club where he once played under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers. His goal means that a win at Norwich on Sunday will leave Rodgers and Liverpool with a five-point cushion when they meet Chelsea in just over a week’s time.
If, as now looks likely, Chelsea fail to land the title in Mourinho’s first season back in charge, he won’t have to look far for the reasons. It won’t be referee Mike Dean, who he cynically pinned the blame on after the match, or any of the other officials he has absurdly and disgracefully accused of some sort of conspiracy this season. All six of Chelsea’s defeats have come immediately before Champions League fixtures. And all three of Chelsea’s league defeats in 2014 have been as a result of their lack of creativity and decisiveness in front of goal have been exposed by tenacious, well-organized teams of lesser quality.
Sunderland appeared unlikely candidates to fill that role. A potential victory at the Etihad on Wednesday was undermined by a late error from goalkeeper Vito Mannone and their defense has looked less than secure through much of the season. It was shaky early on at Stamford Bridge, too.
From Willian’s dangerous corner 12 minutes in, Mannone stayed on his line, a defender missed his header and Lee Cattermole allowed Eto’o to easily get in front of him to strike a volley into the net from just six yards out. At that point few, if any, of those watching in either color at Stamford Bridge or indeed around the globe could have forecast what was to come.
Since a 2-1 defeat to Sunderland in the League Cup in December, Chelsea’s defense has been remarkably solid. Yet, following John Terry’s own goal in their last defeat to Crystal Palace, they again made costly errors on Saturday.
The first came from a new man in the back line. Schwarzer’s first save in the Premier League in Chelsea colors was a less than convincing one as he could only parry Marcos Alonso’s fairly tame drive straight out in front of him, allowing Wickham to poke home from close range.
Ahead of a midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Ramires that offered little creativity from deep, Chelsea’s attacking midfield trio of Willian, Oscar and Mohamed Salah provided little width. It meant that Sunderland could pack the width of the penalty area, fairly safe in the knowledge that Chelsea’s full-backs would also pose little threat.
Still, Chelsea had chances to go back in front before the interval. Branislav Ivanovic might have done better with a free header from another Willian corner that he could only direct down and straight at Mannone, who helped it onto the crossbar before claiming with a sigh of relief. There was a burst of activity toward the end of the opening period, too, but somehow Sunderland survived. Mannone had to be alert to save from Matic and Eto’o. And, after the Sunderland keeper denied Willian and the ball looped across the box, it required a desperate intervention from Sebastian Larsson to prevent Ramires heading into an empty net.
While ruing their failure to be in front at the break, Chelsea could count themselves incredibly fortunate that they were not a man down. Ramires, in only his second game back after seeing red for a terrible challenge in a defeat to Aston Villa, should have been off again for directing a blatant elbow into the face of Larsson.
Even with 11 men, the lack of a reliable goal-scorer continued to plague Chelsea in the second half. Eto’o curled wide of the far post when he should have found the corner of the net, while Demba Ba came on but his poor footwork saw him slip as he stretched to try and convert Willian’s pull-back.
There was still a feeling, though, that, as they have done so often, Chelsea would somehow find a late winner. Instead, in a turn of events that reinforced this season of incredible unpredictability, it was Sunderland that grabbed the crucial goal. Azpilicueta has been incredibly reliable in an unfamiliar position this season, but his slip presented Altidore with an opening. Still, a striker with just one Premier League goal to his name heading toward goal at a tight angle was hardly a just cause for the desperate challenge that Azpilicueta produced. Altidore’s left leg may have been stretched unnaturally to his side when Azpilicueta made contact, but the Chelsea man or his manager can have little complaint about the decision.
Borini with heart-stopping confidence rolled his penalty down the middle to take Sunderland within three points of an unlikely escape from the drop. It was also a day when Chelsea, who before Mourinho's rant had their assistant coach Rui Faria sent to the stands for his over-the-top protests, lost their dignity and quite possibly their chance of the title.