THIS was a game to warm the cockles of the heart of any shivering Sunderland supporter on a cold December night.
Goals aplenty, end-to-end action and a match you could not take your eyes off until the final whistle.
On paper, it looked like a mismatch – bottom-of-the-table Sunderland facing a Chelsea side through to the knockout stages of the Champions League and sitting just behind Arsenal at the top of the table.
The most chilling statistic of all, going into the game, was that Chelsea had won 16 of the last 17 encounters between these two sides.
But, as so often in football, it did not go according to the odds – Sunderland taking an early lead, pushing the visitors all the way and refusing to lie down.
On another night, they might have carved out a victory every bit as unlikely as the previous one against Manchester City.
But this game should have carried a Hazard warning – Eden that is – the Chelsea attacker producing a world-class performance to take the game away from Sunderland, scoring two goals and tormenting the home team every time he got the ball.
Ultimately, it was another Blues win, another Sunderland defeat, in what has too often been a pointless season so far for the Wearsiders.
But that would be to miss the point of a game which should give Black Cats fans far greater cause for hope than despair.
Gus Poyet made two changes to the side which fought to a goalless draw at Aston Villa at the weekend – Jozy Altidore replacing Steven Fletcher as lone striker; Jack Colback returning to central midfield, with Seb Larsson dropping to the bench – as he looked to build on three successive home wins.
Chelsea, who came into the game off the back of Sunday’s 3-1 win over Southampton – also made two changes, Willian coming in for the injured Oscar, veteran Sunderland nemesis Frank Lampard replacing Michael Essien.
Poyet’s men started the game well, pressurising Chelsea and creating an opening in the first couple of minutes when, after impressive build-up play, Fabio Borini rolled a ball across the six-yard box from the right but there was no-one there to capitalise.
Chelsea were all slick football when they got on the ball, Hazard particularly threatening, but Sunderland did not allow them to see much of it in the opening stages.
Hazard thrashed an effort over the crossbar from range in the seventh minute; Lampard fired wide of Vito Mannone’s right-hand post in the 11th minute as Chelsea gradually threatened to take control.
But Sunderland pushed forward and took the lead after winning a free-kick when Altidore was fouled just outside the area, straight in front of goal.
Andrea Dossena’s 14th-minute set piece was a poor one – straight at the Chelsea wall – but the ball dropped to Colback, on the left of the 18-yard box, who pushed it forward to Altidore.
And the American swivelled on to fire a left-foot shot which flashed past Petr Cech to the keeper’s right.
It was a great moment for Altidore, his first league goal in Sunderland colours and he celebrated as he had every right to.
But Sunderland could hold the lead for only three minutes and, after a spell of Blues’ pressure, Hazard chipped in from the goal-line on the left and Lampard rose for the easiest goal he’ll score all season – nodding home from five yards out, unmarked, directly in front of goal.
It was a blow for Sunderland and would have taken the wind out of their sails, but. to the Black Cats’ credit. they did not crumble or let their heads drop.
Instead they dug in, gradually played their way back into the game and, on the half-hour, put Chelsea under real pressure when Dossena rifled in a long-range effort which Cech parried out for the first of two corners.
The Black Cats put themselves under unnecessary pressure seconds later with over-elaboration in defence which ended with Dossena fouling Juan Mata near the right-hand corner flag – Fernando Torres blasting over from the resulting free-kick into the box.
Sunderland took it back up the other end but again failed to threaten from a brace of corners and, in the 36th minute, Hazard gave Chelsea the lead for the first time with a brilliant solo effort.
The Belgian cut inside Bardsley from the left, hoodwinked Gardner, who plunged in too quickly, and then drove a right-foot shot across Mannone and into the bottom corner of goal.
Dossena was booked for a heavy challenge on Mata in the 38th minute before a lovely ball over the top from Lampard put Torres in on goal, only for a superbly-timed challenge from John O’Shea to deny the Spaniard as he looked to pull the trigger.
And that took Sunderland into the break only 2-1 down – far from the end of the world for Poyet’s hopes
He would have felt his team were still very much in it and Sunderland started the second half brightly – Altidore forcing Ramires into a booking just minutes after the restart as he surged past him down the left.
And the Wearsiders forced a 50th-minute equaliser after earning a corner from the right following a lovely through ball from Brown.
Once again the goal came from a set piece – Giaccherini delivering a scuffed corner which Bardsley back-heeled at the near post, Brown helped on and O’Shea swept home from 10 yards out off John Terry’s outstretched leg.
It was a terrific shot in the arm for Sunderland and the key then was keeping the scores level in the minutes that followed.
They managed that, though the Wearsiders were almost undone by a Colback slip in the 56th minute with Chelsea sweeping upfield and Hazard dancing inside two challenges from the left along the 18-yard box before nailing a shot which seemed certain to put the Blues ahead.
Mannone, though, produced an astonishing left-arm block. Torres should have finished off the loose ball, but the striker blazed his shot over the bar.
Colback was replaced by Larsson as Sunderland looked to lock things down, but there was no way of stopping the irrepressible Hazard and, just after the hour, he scored his second goal and Chelsea’s third.
It was a goal of beauty – close control and dribbling before taking a back-heeled pass from Lampard in a one-two and then cutting across goal from the left, moving away from the target before swivelling on a right-foot shot which left Mannone with no chance.
Chelsea had been scintillating and sublime in equal measure during prolonged periods and it was all Sunderland’s over-worked midfield could do to hold on to them at time.
The next quarter-hour saw both sides battling without being able to land a telling blow and the final 15 minutes arrived with penalty appeals from both ends, but referee Phil Dowd refused to be drawn on 50-50 incidents.
In the last 10 minutes, Poyet played the card which would have been on his mind almost from the resumption – Steven Fletcher on as Sunderland went two up front alongside Altidore; Gardner making way.
A chance was created almost straight away, with sub Adam Johnson cutting along the goal-line from the right and chipping the ball across goal, Cech punching away and Ki Sung-Yeung whipping the loose ball wastefully wide from 20 yards.
And then – disaster – a counter-attack down the right from Chelsea and substitute Demba Ba squared the ball across goal from the right – the attack going nowhere but Bardsley stretching to toe-poke the ball home at the far post with not a Chelsea shirt in sight.
It was the sort of own goal which gets shown time and time again – so bad, so unnecessary was it – but it was probably a sign of the amount of trouble Hazard had given Bardsley all night; a sign of how fatigued the full-back was.
He atoned almost immediately, though – getting Sunderland back into it in the 86th minute after Larsson’s venomous free-kick from the left was put out for a corner.
The Swede whipped a dipping ball in from the left which reached Bardsley six yards out, and the defender smacked home a determined finish.
Bardsley’s second goal of the game halted the rush to the exits which had started with his first, two minutes earlier, as Sunderland set themselves up for a grandstand finish.
But it was not to be.
Having scored all three goals from set pieces, Sunderland could not quite conjure one more before the final whistle and had to be content with the most gallant of defeats.
Chelsea should be favourites for the title on the basis of this game – arguably the best team seen this season at a Stadium of Light which has already hosted Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City.
Sunderland, though, should be favourites to avoid the drop if they can keep on playing with such spirit, such desire and no small amount of quality as they displayed against Chelsea last night.