Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Fired-up Altidore proves he’s up to the Sunderland job

Jozy Altidore.
Jozy Altidore.
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THE WAIT for a first Premier League goal in red and white has been a gruelling one for Jozy Altidore.

However prolific the American international has been at international level, the absence of a bread and butter strike for his new club has inevitably garnered attention.

In fairness, Altidore has enjoyed minimal opportunities to find the net in a struggling side and he would have broken his Sunderland duck in September’s visit of Arsenal, had referee Martin Atkinson had the foresight to play an advantage.

But as the weeks and months have ticked on, the question marks have gathered over Altidore.

Here was a striker who netted just once in his previous Premier League spell at Hull City and was accompanied by a sizeable fee, as was Danny Graham six months earlier.

The relief was etched all over Altidore’s face last night as he broke the deadlock in a thrilling encounter against Jose Mourinho’s side.

This could be the spark which gets a striker, who was frighteningly prolific during his time with AZ Alkmaar in Holland, up and running.

It was certainly the start of a fruitful night for the £6million man.

Altidore relished the physical battle against John Terry and Gary Cahill – never letting the Chelsea centre-halves settle – and linked up well with Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini as they moved inside off the flanks.

A goal also boosted Altidore’s confidence sufficiently to burst forward with the ball at his feet.

It took a cynical hack from Ramires to bring him down as the 24-year-old sprinted down the left-hand touchline.

Surely now, Steven Fletcher faces a huge battle to reclaim his place for Saturday’s visit of Spurs.

Despite three strikes from set pieces significantly boosting Sunderland’s tally for the campaign, Poyet’s search for goals remains at red alert in the battle for survival.

Anyone who can find the net has to be considered a commodity – as Poyet admitted with his team selection at Aston Villa last weekend – and Altidore has put forward a strong case for keeping his place.

The fairytale conclusion would have been for Altidore’s strike to secure a 1-0 win, as was the case in the previous Stadium of Light outing against Manchester City.

But after Poyet spoke about the need for “balance” between defence and attack, this was at the opposite end of the spectrum.

From a purely entertainment stance, seven goals provided plenty of value for money.

Yet Sunderland came away empty-handed, principally due to the brilliance of Eden Hazard.

The Belgian was unstoppable. His second goal even prompted a flurry of applause from the home sections inside the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland’s defending was far from at its finest with Hazard’s contribution to Chelsea’s first two goals, as he twice got away from Craig Gardner.

But as Hazard continued in that vein in the second half, it became increasingly evident how much of a torrid task it was to keep the £32million man under wraps.

The Black Cats double and triple-teamed up on Hazard, yet he still managed to persistently allude the attempted tackles of Gardner, Phil Bardsley and John O’Shea.

It was a testament to Sunderland’s character that they continually shook off Hazard’s body blows and fought back, even after Bardsley’s almost comical own goal looked to have been the final nail in the home coffin at 4-2.

If positives count at this stage of the season, then there were plenty for Poyet to take, even if his side were sloppier in possession than they have been for several weeks.

Sunderland moved the ball around at tempo and showed sufficient predatory instincts to capitalise on Chelsea’s indecision from three separate set pieces.

But, ultimately, this was an evening with no points at a time when Sunderland are in dire need of keeping their tally ticking over.

Whenever one of Sunderland’s relegation rivals musters a positive result, it’s met with despairs and sighs at the repercussions on the Black Cats.

It happened on Tuesday night when Crystal Palace triumphed over West Ham – even though that result keeps the latter in the mire – and threatened to again last night before Spurs rallied at Craven Cottage.

It’s an understandable hangover from last year’s scrap.

Sunderland fans were forced to wait with bated breath on Wigan’s results in May before their survival was assured and, given the results over the opening four months of this season, that relegation dogfight spirit has continued.

But those clichéd phrases from the dressing room about “only focusing on ourselves” are, in this case, bang on the money.

With the season not even at the halfway point, Sunderland’s points tally is all that really matters.

Poyet will know that Sunderland need at least six or seven points from December’s five remaining games to have a sniff in the second half of the season.

That would leave them needing 25 or so points from the last 19 games. A tough task, but certainly not an insurmountable one and certainly acceptable after just one point from the opening nine Premier League outings.

Anything from last night – or from Saturday’s visit of Spurs – was always going to be rated as a bonus, but Poyet will take great heart that his side came so close to keeping their tally ticking over against his former club.

Chelsea produced by far the most impressive performance of an away side at the Stadium of Light this season. In Hazard, Juan Mata, Willian and Frank Lampard, Sunderland’s defence faced a constant battle to keep Mourinho’s side at bay.

Doubtless, if Poyet’s men perform as well when they face their relegation peers, their prospects will look much brighter.

The big question, particularly with clashes against West Ham and Norwich on the horizon after Spurs, is whether they can do when it’s more than bonus points up for grabs.

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