Must-win catfight for Blues
Mourinho's men can't afford slip-up
CHELSEA v SUNDERLAND
(Tomorrow, 12.30am, SingTel mio TV Ch 102 and StarHub TV Ch 227)
Manchester City have fallen. Defeat at Anfield was bad enough, but two unexpected points dropped against Sunderland have caused serious damage to their title hopes.
Now it's Chelsea's turn to run the gauntlet against Gus Poyet's relegation strugglers. Jose Mourinho will know, as Manuel Pellegrini does now, that there's nothing as dangerous as a wounded animal.
Sunderland's collapse has been extraordinary, but their display on Wednesday indicates that they haven't quite given up yet.
After losing 1-5 at White Hart Lane, Gus Poyet said that he needed a miracle to survive. He nearly got one at the Etihad Stadium. Will he get the genuine article tonight?
There was a period in the New Year when it looked as if Sunderland had turned the corner.
Three wins in four games, including a thumping 3-0 victory over Newcastle on Feb 1, provided an excellent base to a rare appearance at Wembley in the League Cup final.
But they went into the final on the back of two straight defeats, lost the cup and haven't won since.
In fact, in the nine league games since their north-east derby victory, they've drawn twice and lost seven times.
Poyet has done everything he can, rotating, switching and overhauling the team so many times that the only positive is the relative freshness of his players. A back three has been tried and discarded.
A return to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 brought an improvement, as did the use of Connor Wickham as a lone striker.
The former Ipswich starlet is one of the forgotten stories of English football. Hero of the U-17 European Championship in 2010, his move to the Stadium of Light has been a disaster.
Wednesday was the first time that the Sunderland fans have seen more than a glimmer of his potential. If he can repeat that performance against Chelsea, the Black Cats might have a chance.
Chelsea, under Mourinho, have never been the kind of club to trip up in a game like this, but recent defeats by Crystal Palace and Aston Villa dealt a blow to their confidence.
Those losses, however, came on the road. They very rarely drop points at Stamford Bridge.
West Bromwich Albion and West Ham are the only two teams to have taken anything from their lair. Sunderland will have to be at their very best to have even a chance of repeating their success.
At Swansea last weekend, the Blues played a very patient game. While title-rivals Liverpool tend to hurl themselves into games, desperate to put the result beyond doubt inside the first 10 minutes, Chelsea have far more composure.
Even against 10 men for much of the game, Mourinho's players were patient and shrewd, picking up the points without ever looking vulnerable.
It is Mourinho's way to rank the end higher than the means. That's why he has so many happy endings.
The only cloud on Chelsea's horizon is the doubt over the future of John Terry. At 33, the former England captain is no longer deemed a prime asset by the club and it has emerged that there will be no U-turn on their policy of only offering reduced one-year deals for maturing players.
Mourinho is desperate not to lose his captain, but if Terry is offered "only" £75,000 ($158,000)per week, he may decide to leave for one last payday, and a move to Turkey, where the tax rates are minimal, has been mooted.
But if Sunderland are hoping that this uncertainty will put Chelsea off their stride, they will be disappointed. Nothing ever seems to put this team off their stride, especially not at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho may continue to insist that his team have no chance of winning the title, what with them being little horses and all, but secretly he will know that they have every chance.
Provided they don't make silly mistakes.
I wouldn’t say he is definitely out but the fact he hasn’t yet trained with the rest of the group means he is a major doubt.
— Chelsea assistant first-team coach Steve Holland on Eden Hazard’s availability for the Champions League semi-final, first leg against Atletico Madrid next week. Hazard is out of the Sunderland game.
Wickham fears Cats dropping
Connor Wickham's two goals against Manchester City may have been a huge relief for the young striker, but he admitted Sunderland's failure to hold on for victory may have been a killer blow.
Wickham finally made the breakthrough in the Premier League with his impressive double in the 2-2 draw on Wednesday.
The 21-year-old has been living with the burden of an £8 million ($16.8m) price tag since he joined Sunderland from Ipswich as a 17-year-old in 2011.
A win would have been a huge boost to bottom club Sunderland's survival hopes but City forced a late equaliser through Samir Nasri.
Wickham told PA Sport: "It was definitely a killer blow but we have five games left, so it's not impossible.
"If we perform on Saturday like we did, then I don't see why we wouldn't have a chance."
Wickham had been recalled on loan from Leeds by manager Gus Poyet and repaid that faith by scoring his first Premier League goals since October 2011.
He added: "It was a massive relief for me to score, not just for myself but I think for the team.
"I guess I had a point to prove. I've been sent out on loan a couple of times but that's football for me. I'm just out to do what I do and I hope I've done myself no harm with this performance.
"It wasn't easy playing in the Premier League at 17 but I've never felt pressured to do what I do.
"We performed so well and dug in and, from the moment they scored first, I think we dominated the game.
"Don't get me wrong, they had their patches but we created more, we defended solidly and when we went forward, we looked a threat and thankfully the two goals eventually came and they got a lucky one right at the end."
Wickham's loan spells at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday proved successful but he confirmed it was not a move he had asked for.
He added: "I didn't plan to go out on loan, but it happened. I've played a lot of football since going away. That can only benefit me.
"I came to play Premier League football, but I went away, got match-fit, scored a few goals and I've played against three of the top five since coming back.
"I didn't ask to come back, the manager called me, so, for me, it was a positive and I had something to prove.
"Hopefully, this is the start of something new." - PA Sport.
BY THE NUMBERS
After scoring only one goal in his first 37 EPL appearances, Connor Wickham scores his next two in just 10 minutes against Manchester City on Wednesday.