SUCCUMBING by less than a four-goal margin has almost been a level par score for Sunderland at Stamford Bridge since the Premier League was spawned.
In five out of their 10 trips to the King’s Road prior to Saturday, Sunderland had been cannon fodder, despatched by a minimum of four goals to the delight of an affluently evolved support brigade, too mindful of the Atkin’s diet to subject themselves to a prawn sandwich.
But in little over a year, reasonable contentedness at the climax of a 1-0 defeat at the Bridge has been replaced by genuine dejection.
Disappointment was etched on to the face of each and every Sunderland player as they trudged out of the away dressing room at the weekend after spurning more chances than they could muster in last season’s meteoric 3-0 success in the same setting.
It wasn’t just the manner of succumbing though which prompted such crestfallen reactions. Sunderland had a genuine belief that they could continue Martin O’Neill’s resurgence by extending the winning streak to four.
The Black Cats were understandably buoyant following the transformation in their fortunes, while the abiding memories of the highlight of last season only further boosted optimism.
But the principal source of sensing this was an opportunity missed, stemmed from Chelsea’s inadequacies, for this is no longer an outfit capable of striking fear into lower placed opposition.
Tabloid tales of Chelsea’s demise are difficult to gauge without first-hand evidence and there had to be a suspicion of over-reaction, given the red-tops have not been short on disgruntled players willing to dish the dirt on Andre Villas-Boas’s attempts to displace the power of the dressing room’s senior figures.
Yet the wild celebrations which greeted the final whistle showcased the change in mentality of a side now forced to ride their luck rather than a juggernaut capable of steamrollering to routine victories.
In midfield, Chelsea lacked balance – Ramires, Oriol Romeu and Raul Meireles being much of a muchness while Frank Lampard’s ageing legs are forcing the England man to drop deeper, rather than habitually arriving late into the area.
Lampard still offers a goal threat, even if he knew little about the strike which moved him level in the all-time Chelsea scoring stakes with Jimmy Greaves, but the 33-year-old is no longer a player who needs to be rigorously shackled.
Up front, Juan Mata looks a perfect spoil for Fernando Torres as someone capable of finding space and threading the eye of the needle pass and the Portuguese had his moments, particularly when Matt Kilgallon showed signs of toil before facing the agony of being stretchered away.
But the English winter has taken its toll on Mata, who doesn’t look quite the force he did at the Stadium of Light in September and needs a midfield system where the ball is moved with far more accuracy and tempo, rather than a side reliant on the diagonal pass to pick out Ashley Cole on the overlap.
As for Torres, well, the Spaniard is not quite the spent force he is painted as.
The peel away at the back stick for the goal was clever and the technique used to execute the scissor kick deserved to see the name Torres printed on the Teletext results page.
His hold-up play was neat, the tracking back was tireless ... the only thing missing from the £50million man’s game is an end to a three-month Premier League goal drought.
Too often, Torres collected possession midway inside the Sunderland half and raced down the blind alley towards the flanks, rather than scenting goal prey and making a beeline to the penalty area.
But Villas-Boas deserves some leeway for striving to alter Chelsea’s style, rather than relying on the historic approach of Didier Drogba’s battering ram, Lampard’s goals and a miserly backline.
It is the decline of the latter though which undermines Villas-Boas’s credentials.
Only Wolves had failed to score at the Bridge this season prior to the weekend and from the moment Stephane Sessegnon was allowed to charge down the right and square agonisingly across the face of Chelsea’s goal, the home defence looked, worryingly for them, brittle.
Sunderland’s widemen were barely involved in the first half, yet O’Neill’s men still created the best chances of the opening 45 minutes, simply through Chelsea not getting tight enough to the front two.
Nicklas Bendtner’s finishing may have been wayward, but he held the ball up effectively for Sessegnon, who left Chelsea’s back-line terror-stricken whenever he ran at them.
John Terry just doesn’t look comfortable alongside David Luiz and the introduction of England central defensive partner Gary Cahill can’t come soon enough.
Bendtner was unfortunate with the shot across goal which dribbled beyond the back stick, yet can you imagine such a simple one-two with Sessegnon causing turmoil if former Blues star Ricardo Carvalho had been alongside Terry?
It only got worse at the back for the hosts after the break as James McClean burst forth from anonymity by hogging the left touchline.
Jose Bosingwa was put on the rack by the 22-year-old and it allowed Sunderland’s midfield to push forward and pile on the pressure in the concluding 25 minutes as the hosts became increasingly jittery.
Yes, Sunderland have to look at themselves in the mirror for squandering the conveyor belt of opportunities, but the quantity and quality of opportunities must spark doubts over Chelsea’s Champions League qualification credentials, let alone any title aspirations.
Sunderland persisted with their trait of defeats inflicted by a one-goal margin, yet the narrow losses at Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United bore nothing like the same pattern of visiting dominance.
The nauseous phrase of a “club in transition” genuinely does apply to Chelsea and that made it all the more galling that Sunderland failed to strengthen their top 10 credentials.