RICHARD MENNEAR'S ANALYSIS: Sunderland's fate won't be decided against top teams

Sunderland's fate this season won't be decided by games against those competing for the Premier League title.

Thursday, 15th December 2016, 11:00 am
Updated Thursday, 15th December 2016, 1:00 pm
Adnan Januzaj clashes with Cesar Azpilicueta

Chelsea are top and favourites to lift the trophy when the awards are dished out in May.

For David Moyes’ side, Saturday’s home game with Watford offers a far more realistic chance of three points.

And they need them fast, with the Black Cats four points adrift.

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They showed plenty of doggedness and determination against Chelsea but Antonio Conte’s men looked a cut above all game.

If it wasn’t for Jordan Pickford, the scoreline could have been much greater. But Sunderland deserve credit for staying in the game so long.

As long as it stayed 1-0, Cesc Fabregas’ 40th minute strike opening the scoring, then the Black Cats had a chance of grabbing a point.

And they almost achieved it at the death, Thiabut Courtois with a stunning save to deny Patrick van Aanholt.

Crucially, Sunderland have not lost any ground in the battle for survival. Relegation rivals Hull City, Swansea City, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace were all beaten too.

The loss of Mr Dependable Billy Jones to injury is a concern for Moyes ahead of Watford, with Sunderland down to the bare bones at the moment.

You just had to take one look at the bench to realise that. Numbers are depleted.

Sunderland gave the ball away far too much, the goal was poor with the midfield and defence carved open and the decision-making questionable at times.

Sunderland stuck at it but in the end Chelsea had too much quality.

Ahead of the game, little battler Bradley Lowery was the star of the show, taking part in a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea, achieving a dream to score at the Stadium of Light.

The Sunderland fan has captured the hearts of the nation with his brave battle against neuroblastoma.

There was an emotional standing ovation in the fifth minute in honour of Bradley, with supporters from both sides joining in the ‘There’s only one Bradley Lowery’ chant.

A huge roar erupted from the South Stand at the end of it. The Sunderland players responded with a dogged first half performance.

Sporting a new-look back three, with skipper John O’Shea at the heart of defence flanked by Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji either side.

It was a fluid formation, with van Aanholt and Billy Jones given licence to roam forward when Sunderland had the ball and to track back and make it a flat-back five when they didn’t.

The midfield compact with Jason Denayer and Jan Kirchhoff supported by Manchester United loanee Adnan Januzaj.

Fit-again Fabio Borini, making his first start since the end of August after recovering from a thigh injury, was playing centrally providing support to Defoe.

His usual strike partner Victor Anichebe missing through injury alongside Steven Pienaar, with Didier Ndong suspended and Seb Larsson on the bench.

It was bottom versus top but the Black Cats made Chelsea work, restricting them to very few clear cut chances.

Chelsea dominated the possession but Sunderland were comfortable.

Mind, their only chance of note in the first half a Januzaj effort that went well wide after the winger had jinked his way towards goal in the 25 minute.

Ten minutes before half-time, Pickford produced a stunning one-handed save to palm away Pedro’s close-range effort.

The offside flag was up but the England Under-21 stopper wasn’t to know that.

There was little in the game but Chelsea took the lead five minutes before half-time, Sunderland gave the ball away on the half-way line and the Blues capitalised quickly.

Fabregas, who skipped away from a Kirchhoff challenge, played a one-two with Willian before curling home a smart finish into the corner of the net.

Sunderland had been pegged back for much of the first half, they had to be more expansive in the second if they wanted to get anything out of the game.

Moyes’ options from the subs bench were limited, with 17-year-olds Joel Asoro and Josh Maja drafted into the squad alongside George Honeyman.

Sunderland should have been level within two minutes of the re-start. Defoe slipped Januzaj in but his low effort was brilliantly saved by Courtois.

It was far more open second half, with Chelsea hitting the crossbar, Willian’s effort deflected off Djilobodji before Pickford saved from Moses and Costa.

Sunderland were dealt a blow just before the hour mark, Jones taken off injured, with Donald Love on in his place.

Chelsea were cranking up the pressure, Willian the next Blues forward to send an attempt wide.

Pickford saved low from former Sunderland loanee Marcos Alonso at his near post.

Chelsea were dominating but Sunderland almost snatched a leveller through Defoe, whose near-post flickwent just wide.

With Sunderland only trailing by one goal heading into the final 10 minutes, Moyes brought Wahbi Khazri on for Borini.

Borini had done well on his return to the Sunderland side after a lengthy spell out.

Sunderland couldn’t find a breakthrough but it wasn’t for the want of trying late on.

Jason Denayer headed straight at Courtois late on from a corner before the Blues keeper produced a stunning one-handed save to deny van Aanholt in the last minute.

It would have been a superb point but in the end it wasn’t to be.

Sunderland have to recover quickly and look to kick-start their survival fight again when Watford, beaten at Man City last night, head to Wearside this weekend.