Sunderland's promise under O'Neill has faded
Mackems in a relegation battle
8 December ~ As a Sunderland supporter, some of my favourite games ever have been against Chelsea. There was a memorable FA Cup quarter-final extra-time winner at Roker Park in 1992. Then there were four Sunderland goals in the first 38 minutes in 1999 and sitting a few rows in front of a glum Ken Bates as we won 4-2 at Stamford Bridge two years later. In 2010 Sunderland humbled Chelsea with an unexpected 3-0 win. But, in reality, Sunderland's recent record against the Blues is dire – Chelsea have won 14 of the last 15 league games against us.
Today's match between the clubs comes at a delicate point in the season for both teams. Sunderland look increasingly desperate, sitting one point off the bottom three with just two wins in the last 22 Premier League matches. Sunderland fans are adept in recognising the symptoms of possible relegation. At the moment, all the criteria seem in place for a long and depressing battle against it.
Most concerning is that neither the players nor the manager seem to have any idea about how to stop this run. Both victories this season were in games where the opponents, Fulham and Wigan, were (somewhat fortuitously) down to ten men. The team seem sluggish and vulnerable all over the pitch. A side that relies on extremely slow counter attacking is very easy for opponents to deal with. Important forward-thinking players such as Stéphane Sessègnon, Adam Johnson and James McClean are all struggling for form.
At the moment Martin O'Neill doesn't seem to know how to change this. When O'Neill arrived last December, Sunderland took 13 points from his first six games. This raised hopes hugely and maybe gave a false impression of how good this team is. The club's signings in the summer seemed wise but failing to buy a creative midfielder to link defence and attack now appears a major mistake. O'Neill's team is probably nowhere near as good as it appeared at first or quite as dreadful as it has been recently but something needs to change very soon.
On an optimistic note, the second-half performance against Norwich last week was one of the best of the season so far. The teenage forward Connor Wickham caused huge problems for the Norwich defence after coming on at half-time. Wickham hasn't had much first-team action since his £8 million move from Ipswich in 2011 but surely he should be given a chance now. This would require O'Neill to drop his favoured 4-5-1 formation in order to accommodate Wickham, something many fans are urging him to do.
Chelsea's worst Premier League start in the Roman Abramovich era has been well documented. Any psychological boost from their 6-1 thrashing of Nordsjaelland on Wednesday must have been nullified by their Champions League exit. With unpopular new manager Rafa Benítez still in need of a Premier League win, let's hope Chelsea personify their owner with a sulky and disgruntled performance. On the other hand, if they come out angry and motivated by their European embarrassment, they will win this game.
This might be a good time to play Chelsea but it's definitely a good time to play Sunderland. I have very little hope that this game will make my list of favourite Sunderland v Chelsea matches. Ed Upright