THE RETURN of Wes Brown has unquestionably been the catalyst for Sunderland’s vast defensive improvement.
Brown offers the ice-cool composure, organisational presence and sheer quality that has led Sunderland to concede just three goals since his return - one of which came after he had been ludicrously dismissed at Stoke City.
But the former England international is not alone in contributing to far greater solidity in the Black Cats back-line, which has clearly benefited from the work of Gus Poyet’s team on the training ground.
Phil Bardsley and Andrea Dossena have offered experience in a perilous situation, Vito Mannone has been unflappable in goal, while John O’Shea has looked far more comfortable alongside his former Manchester United team-mate.
At the start of the season, the weight of responsibility was on the Sunderland captain to hold together a new-look defence, where harmony was hampered by a lack of English.
But with Brown back in the fold, the burden has been shared, with the two centre-halves nullifying Christian Benteke at Villa Park on Saturday.
There was a broad smile on Poyet’s face yesterday when he announced that O’Shea had made a sooner-than-expected return from a groin strain.
Valentin Roberge would have offered cover and on the evidence of his performance at Stoke City last month, the summer arrival is beginning to bridge the gap between Portugese football and the Premier League.
But O’Shea and Brown have renewed a rock-solid partnership and undoubtedly offer Sunderland their best hope of survival.
O’Shea’s fitness is a timely boost ahead of an encounter which will provide the ultimate test of Sunderland’s defensive improvement against a Chelsea side looking for a ninth successive Stadium of Light victory.
Jose Mourinho can even call upon one of Sunderland’s bogey men, with Fernando Torres (pictured, above)boasting six goals in nine games against the Black Cats.
Torres could be a victim of Mourinho’s rotation, with Demba Ba bidding to start after netting his first Premier League goal of the campaign in Sunday’s comeback against Southampton.
But whether Mourinho, who will be without injured pair David Luiz and Oscar, introduces Ba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Willian or Andre Schurrle from his bench at the weekend, Sunderland’s defence is still in for a long night.
There is hope though.
Sunderland’s home performances throughout the campaign have generally been good and that has materialised into results under Poyet.
They are facing a Chelsea side who have suffered from inconsistency too after Mourinho’s second coming, despite their lofty league position.
Chelsea were woeful in defeat at Newcastle last month, while they spent the first half against Southampton suffering from shell-shock after conceding just 13 seconds into the game.
Can Sunderland sufficiently test that vulnerability though after drawing two successive blanks away from home?
Poyet could turn to Jozy Altidore or Adam Johnson to boost Sunderland’s goal-shy attack and the pair, along with Jack Colback and Lee Cattermole, could well get an opportunity either tonight or in Saturday’s visit of Spurs, at the start of a ludicrously hectic December period.
But the head coach can only take one game at a time and there wasn’t a lot wrong with Saturday’s display at Villa. Poyet could hardly legislate for Emanuele Giaccherini spurning an opportunity like that on the stroke of half-time.
The extra two points that a win at Villa would have earned, would have been invaluable for the Black Cats and now they face two uphill tasks against Poyet’s former clubs to keep their tally ticking over before they hit the road again.
If they can get anything before two more appealing games against West Ham and Norwich, it will set the foundations for a breathless December.
Verdict: Away win