SUNDERLAND dropped into the Premier League relegation zone after they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat against third placed Chelsea.
The Black Cats showed plenty of heart and spirit against the European champions, but defensive clangers gifted Chelsea their first Premier League win since October and a maiden victory under Rafa Benitez.
Fernando Torres opened the scoring with his first goal in more than 20 hours of top flight football, before Seb Larsson conceded an utterly needless penalty in first half stoppage time that the Spaniard dispatched for his second.
Juan Mata added a third after the break when he tucked home the rebound after Torres’ shot struck the crossbar.
Adam Johnson’s first goal at the Stadium of Light gave Sunderland hope, but Southampton’s victory over Reading confined Martin O’Neill’s men to the bottom three for the first time this season.
Steven Fletcher failed to shake off the ankle problem he suffered at Norwich, with Connor Wickham making his first Premier League start in 12 months as his replacement up front.
But Sunderland were boosted by the return of John O’Shea from a calf strain, with the centre half taking the place of Matt Kilgallon in the starting line-up.
Chelsea were unchanged from the side which thrashed Nordsjaelland 6-1 in the Champions League, although there was a spot on the bench for fit-again England midfielder Frank Lampard.
The visitors had a golden chance to break the deadlock inside the opening 90 seconds when Juan Mata produced a delicious reverse ball in between O’Shea and Phil Bardsley, which sent Eden Hazard in behind the Sunderland back-line.
Hazard complained that he was being impeded by Seb Larsson, but stayed on his feet and could only fire a shot into the midriff of Simon Mignolet, who had raced out of his goal.
Moments later, Chelsea carved out another clear-cut opportunity when Mata played a one-two with Hazard and received a perfectly weighted chipped return ball in behind.
But with Mignolet racing out of his goal, Mata opted to square rather than shoot and the ball harmlessly drifted across the face.
Yet another chance arrived for Chelsea in the sixth minute when O’Shea inadvertently fired a clearance straight at Carlos Cuellar and the ball ricocheted straight into the path of Fernando Torres.
But Torres reacted slowly and Mignolet was able to slide in on the Spaniard as he attempted to get a shot away.
The breakthrough finally arrived for Chelsea in the 11th minute after Bardsley gave the ball away midway inside the opposing half and then Cuellar committed himself trying to intercept Torres on halfway.
Chelsea broke down the left through Hazard and the Belgian crossed for Torres to cushion a volley inside the near post.
David Luiz sent a dipping 25-yard free-kick just over the bar five minutes later.
Chelsea were forced into an early change in the 20th minute when Oriol Romeu limped off after failing to recover from a 50-50 challenge with Wickham. Oscar took the place of the Spaniard.
Sunderland were showing spirit in their bid to grab an equaliser, even if they struggled to muster a clear-cut opportunity – Bardsley’s shot from distance just deflecting out of the path of the waiting James McClean in the 27th minute.
But Stephane Sessegnon did force a save out of Petr Cech moments later when the Benin international collected Wickham’s flick-on and let fly from 20 yards with a dipping shot that the keeper pushed behind.
Chelsea remained a threat though, Oscar volleying a couple of yards wide in the 38th minute after Danny Rose’s headed clearance from Mata’s free-kick only reached the edge of the area.
On the stroke of half-time, the visitors doubled their advantage after Larsson conceded an utterly needless penalty when he slid in on Ramires on the left-hand touchline.
Torres stepped up and sent Mignolet the wrong way from the spot – tucking it coolly into the bottom right-hand corner.
HALF-TIME Sunderland 0 Chelsea 2
Chelsea added a third three minutes into the second half after a disastrous interception from Bardsley.
The right-back’s loose first-touch to Victor Moses’ cross from the right fell straight into the path of Torres, whose first-time shot on the turn crashed off the bar.
Mata was alert to the rebound and cushioned a half-volley beyond Mignolet into the far corner.
Moments later, Moses drilled a shot just beyond the far post after being played in by Mata down the right-hand channel.
But Sunderland were given hope in the 66th minute when Johnson grabbed his first goal at the Stadium of Light.
Chelsea had failed to clear their lines from a corner and the ball eventually came out to Johnson on the left-hand side of the box, from a seemingly impossible angle.
But Johnson managed to squeeze a left-footed shot beyond the static Cech into the far corner.
The England winger almost further reduced the deficit in the 75th minute, but his curling free-kick from 25 yards was palmed behind by Cech as it headed for the top corner.
Substitute Lampard tried his luck with six minutes to go, with Mignolet parrying his 25-yard strike before Sunderland maanged to clear their lines.
Wickham let fly with a low shot from just outside the area in stoppage time, but Cech managed to touch it behind with his outstretched right arm.
Gardner then struck the crossbar with a thumping 25-yard free-kick, which Cech tipped onto the woodwork.
FULL-TIME Sunderland 1 Chelsea 3
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley (Colback 67), Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose, McClean, Larsson (Saha 81), Gardner, Johnson, Sessegnon, Wickham. Subs not used: Campbell, Kilgallon, Vaughan, Bramble, Westwood. Booked: Gardner (42)
CHELSEA: Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole, Romeu (Oscar 20), Ramires, Mata, Moses (Bertrand 61), Hazard (Lampard 79), Torres. Subs not used: Turnbull, Ferreira, Marin, Azpilicueta. Booked: Ivanovic (72), Ramires (84), Mata (87)
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