THE BLAME game this season has largely centred around Sunderland’s threat from out wide.
Given that so much was expected of Adam Johnson and James McClean as complementary wingmen, the duo have generally underwhelmed and struggled to consistently make the impression they are evidently capable of in the Premier League.
McClean’s attempts to reinvent himself as a winger not blessed by the mask of the unknown have seen the ex-Derry City man lose that element of directness which saw him prosper last season and he has almost looked overwhelmed by whether to dart inside or out.
Meanwhile, Johnson has had to adapt to the change of mentality between a team at the summit of the league and one at the other end of the table.
The extra attention from defenders and the extra pressure on producing as the genuine element of quality, has seen Johnson largely toil at the Stadium of Light.
But neither wideman could shoulder the blame for a fifth defeat in seven Premier League outings for Sunderland on Saturday.
It was Sunderland’s gift-wrapped festive treats at the back that saw Chelsea end their own win drought, not the efforts of the Black Cats’ wingers who were arguably as good as they have been all season.
For the first time since May, McClean ran with a purpose whenever graced with the ball and had Branislav Ivanovic scampering backwards towards the safety of Chelsea’s final third.
Some in the crowd will not forgive McClean for his off-field choices, while others consider that the 23-year-old’s sell-by-date expired at the end of last season.
But perhaps a spell out of the side has worked in McClean’s favour.
He undoubtedly showed renewed hunger and purpose in beating his man, and looked to make the most of Sunderland’s attempts to harry and harass Chelsea.
There was also an end product from the Republic of Ireland international.
The late ball he swept agonisingly across the face would have had the watching Steven Fletcher salivating.
As has so often been the case this season, Sunderland have struggled to muster sufficient bodies in the box when their widemen have had some joy and the likes of Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson still need to show far greater urgency to support the lone striker.
While McClean was full of industry and endeavour, Johnson provided the element of nonchalant class on the other flank.
Midway through the first half, a high ball was arrowed out to Johnson, while he was hugging the right-hand touchline.
The 25-year-old effortlessly brought it down with his outstretched left leg. It was the type of touch Sunderland supporters thought they would see regularly when Martin O’Neill invested 10 of Ellis Short’s millions during the summer.
But Johnson’s display was not simply easy on the eye.
The former Middlesbrough man consistently got the better of England colleague Ashley Cole and it was only a sensational last-gasp block in the Chelsea area which prevented Johnson teeing up Stephane Sessegnon for a first half leveller.
Whether it was the motivation of testing himself against such a high calibre left-back, or whether Johnson has simply begun to appreciate the magnitude of Sunderland’s situation, it was his best display at the Stadium of Light so far and desperately needs replicating tomorrow night.
The problem for Sunderland’s widemen against Reading will be that they won’t be given such licence to run with the ball.
Chelsea barely, if at all, doubled up on Sunderland’s wingers – Rafa Benitez largely leaving his full-backs to deal one-on-one with the threat from the Black Cats’ flanks.
Reading won’t be so generous.
The Royals will follow the lead of the bulk of previous visitors to the Stadium of Light this season by doubling and even trebling up on Sunderland’s widemen, in the hope of nullifying the supply lines into the area.
It puts the onus on Sunderland’s middle men and their full-backs to commit defenders and provide some space for Johnson and McClean to thrive.
There is a case for Danny Rose to provide that helping hand by pushing forward into central midfield from left-back, as he did for the final 23 minutes on Saturday.
It is a ploy O’Neill has been considering for the last few weeks and the Sunderland boss certainly believes Rose has the ability to play in the middle of the park.
O’Neill’s concern is that Rose is still in the formative stages of a Premier League career and the effect of constantly bombing between the two boxes often leaves the on-loan Spurs man out of puff.
It would be a calculated gamble by O’Neill to deploy Rose in midfield for this game, of all games.
But it is possibly worth the risk, particularly as Jack Colback will offer a reliable replacement at left-back, even if he has struggled to excel in his favoured midfield role.
Rose is one of the few players in Sunderland’s ranks who can genuinely lay claim to being in form and bursting with confidence and the victors tomorrow night will be the side who have the greatest mental strength.
Bravery and courage to block out thoughts of the magnitude of the game and the tension which will inevitably be on the terraces, will be just as important as Sunderland’s ability to prove a goal threat against one of the strugglers after registering blanks against Aston Villa and QPR.
For although Sunderland showed renewed threat out wide against Chelsea, tomorrow offers a starkly different challenge.