Pete Sixsmith is on Father Christmas duty today, up in Weardale where Monsieur Salut once looked out of the window of a Save Our Railway Line special and saw him doing his stuff with the red-and-white-striped Shildon Sunderland Supporters’ FC team. But he delayed his drive up the dale to write this fittingly noble report on yesterday’s outstanding performance against Chelsea, one that went agonisingly close to yielding three points instead of one …
Another Saturday, another goalless draw – but what a difference between the two. Whereas last week’s was dull and routine, this was exciting and, dare I say it, inspiring as we prevented the league leaders from finding the back of the old onion bag for the first time this season.
An exciting goalless draw may seem to be a prime example of antithesis, a term defined in my Chambers as “a thesis or proposition opposing one another”. How can a game with no goals be described as exciting and rewarding? Those who sat through the three previous ones this season, would no doubt agree that each one was as tedious as a night in the company of Father Paul Stone, the very dull priest who descends upon the Craggy Island Parochial House annually.
But not this one.
It was played at a tempo, initially dictated by the visitors and then picked up by us and taken to them as the game progressed.
It was played between two teams with different aims. Chelsea were determined to break the Sunderland mini hoodoo from last season, Sunderland were determined to prove to the bulk of the 45,000 crowd favouring red and white that the Southampton hangover was well and truly out of the way and that we were fully recovered.
That Chelsea had most of the possession, particularly in the first half, is beyond argument. That they were rarely able to get through the ranks of our midfield and back four is equally so – the Giant Pantilimon will have busier games than this against less exalted sides than the Pensioners.
It was stirring to see a Sunderland side who were, for once, able to follow the instructions of their manager and coaches. Poyet, Taricco and Oatway must have spent the whole week saying to the players: “Don’t jump in, jockey them until you are ready and then make sure that you win the ball. Treat the whole game as if it were 90 minutes of attack and defence but remember that you have forward players who can use the ball. Try not to give it straight back to the other lot.”
If they were the instructions, they worked and worked well. The whole back line was immense and defended cleanly, competently and confidently.
Vergini, who clearly enjoys the song being sung about him, was far more comfortable at making interventions as Chelsea tried to pass the ball around him, than he is when a quick winger is running at him. He even looks a likely scorer – right end this time.
Brown cut out any errors and O’Shea led by example. His tackle on Costa was exceptional and may well have made the Chelsea player realise that he was up against a top notch central defender, which may explain why he kicked out at him.
Reveillere continues to impress at left back and his signing probably justifies Lee Congerton’s salary. The Frenchman looks cool, calm and controlled and he can use the ball as well. No hopeful punts a la Bardsley, just a pass to where Wickham and Johnson should be.
Much has been said about Wickham being wasted on the left but I thought he was very good in this game. He made Ivanovic look uncomfortable and that takes some doing as he is one of the least flustered players in the Premier League, the kind of player who overpowers his opponent. He didn’t in this game and Wickham had him consistently on the back foot and apart from one moment in the first half when TGP made a good save, stopped him from getting into our box.
The midfield is where games like this are won and lost. Chelsea have strength, skill and speed in theirs with Matic, Willian and Hazard backed up with Oscar and Fabregas. Five exceptional international players, all with oodles of experience in World Cups, Champions League and the top echelons of the Premier League.
They may now have Lee Cattermole on their radar as he turned in a display that was probably his best in a red and white shirt – and a blue and white one come to that. Not always a favourite, he clearly understands what Poyet wants from him, particularly in games like this and he gave everything.
He blocks, tackles, chases, harries and is beginning to show that he can pass a ball. He fears no one and on days like this, looks a top class player who could go on to the national squad. I gather that Mourinho was impressed with Lee’s performance and Ruud Gullit and Jamie Redknapp sang his praises as did Danny Murphy on MOTD – first time I have watched it for weeks.
He was ably assisted by Seb Larsson and Jack Rodwell and then, when Rodwell tired, Jordi Gomez. A tight midfield is so important and at times this season we have been flabby in the middle. Not in this game; tackling was sharp, distribution was better and the fact that none of Chelsea’s much vaunted five were I ever in control says it all.
Chelsea could and should have been down to 10 men either at the end of the first half or halfway through the second. Costa kicked out at O’Shea and some refs would have seen that as a straight red or a yellow at least. Kevin Friend, in the middle of a bad 20 minute spell, let it go and then pulled a yellow when Costa’s trailing arm caught Wes Brown in the face.
My reaction, calm and thoughtful man that I am, was to leap to my feet and demand a red for the Spanish international. A look at MOTD last night had me grudgingly agreeing that Friend got it right and that it was not intentional – but I still believe that it should have been his second yellow. After all, Rodriguez of Hull was sent off for something similar last week, invoking the wrath of Steve Bruce – not a difficult thing to do.
So, after almost a third of the season, we are sitting on 14 points in 13th place and, Southampton apart, a difficult side to beat. We don’t score many and we don’t let a lot in. We lack a bit of flair and can be a bit flat and dull at times but compared with the shambles of last year and the torpor that descended on us under Martin O’Neill, we look a steady middle of the table side.
But it doesn’t get any easier; Manchester City on Wednesday, Liverpool next Saturday, then Mag Slayers West Ham United and finally the Mags themselves. Six or seven points from that little lot would set us up for a Happy Christmas.
Ho, ho, ho as the Fat Man in the red suit has been known to say.
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