Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Subdued boss gets a reaction, but old problems resurface

Sunderland's Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson, Alfred N'Diaye, Conor Wickham and Phil Bardsley form a wall to defend a free kick.
Sunderland's Seb Larsson, Adam Johnson, Alfred N'Diaye, Conor Wickham and Phil Bardsley form a wall to defend a free kick.
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AJUMPING jack-in-the-box; raging down touchlines, headbutting dug-outs and celebrating like the most diehard of supporters.

That has been the portrait daubed of Paolo Di Canio since this figure of renowned volatility took charge at the Stadium of Light eight days ago.

Sunderland supporters were led to believe that a ticking timebomb of emotion had been placed in the dug-out, teetering on the edge to blast some life into a side sleepwalking towards the drop zone.

But perhaps mindful of the individual attention which has centred around him this week, there was a far more subdued showing from Di Canio than expected at Stamford Bridge.

Inevitably, there was plenty of shrugging, several shouts of encouragement and direction for his players, plus the odd word in conference with seated number two Fabrizio Piccareta.

Yet there was no single defining moment for the cameras where Di Canio boiled over.

Cutely for a manager who clearly holds more beneath the surface than the expressive exterior, Di Canio let his players deliver the message about the effect his brief stewardship has already had.

The noises coming out of the Sunderland camp over the last few days have all been positive.

Players have sent out smoke signals about operating in a more structured environment, where they are all more aware of their respective tasks for the side.

Far from resenting Di Canio’s disciplined approach both on and off the training field, it has been welcomed for sowing the seeds necessary for Sunderland to survive in the Premier League.

The opening 45 minutes provided plenty of tangible proof of that Di Canio revolution.

A lacklustre Chelsea were unable to muster a clear-cut opportunity – John O’Shea and the recalled Matt Kilgallon each demonstrating their determination with a couple of stunning blocks to deny Demba Ba.

Phil Bardsley looked sharper than he has done all season at right-back, while Sunderland’s midfield fulfilled their brief of denying Chelsea’s attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar the time and space with which they can reap such rewards.

It wasn’t a backs-to-the-wall show either, as Sunderland retained possession with as much intent and precision as they have done during the entire campaign – arguably as well as they have since Martin O’Neill’s first four months in charge.

Adam Johnson looked like he was operating via a proverbial rocket and it was perhaps no coincidence that the England winger, more than any other Sunderland player, was subjected to Di Canio’s directions during the first half.

Whether through instructing Johnson to hog the touchline or get back to lend a helping hand to Bardsley, Di Canio concentrated on getting the best out of the £10million man and it worked during the opening half-hour.

Stephane Sessegnon was similarly involved, the bulk of Sunderland’s play going through the Benin international, who should have done far better than blasting an inviting sixth-minute opportunity into the side netting.

But it was Connor Wickham – ironically a player rushed back from injury to start Martin O’Neill’s era in red and white – who was the chief beneficiary of a new dawn for the Black Cats.

It was a change largely forced upon Di Canio, with Danny Graham’s knee and back problems preventing the substitute from even warming up.

But Wickham took his chance, by demonstrating that he is able to make the most of his 6ft 4in frame.

The 19-year-old physically bullied Chelsea’s centre-halves during the first half, winning the aerial battle and managing to spin away from the attentions of David Luiz. It was perhaps no surprise that the Brazilian petulantly swung an arm into his face during the closing stages.

Wickham’s exclusion under O’Neill this season and his departure to Sheffield Wednesday was one which gnawed at supporters and the faith on the terraces was rewarded with an encouraging outing.

When Sunderland took the lead, albeit in fortuitous fashion, on the stroke of half-time, it was arguably just what Di Canio’s side deserved.

But what followed at the start of the second half was an indefensible breach of one those footballing commandments carved into stone at the dawn of time.

It will have been the first sentence that left Di Canio’s lips in the dressing room at the interval.


Yes, Chelsea enjoyed a hefty chunk of fortune with both goals.

But Sunderland contributed to their own downfall – the first stemming from a Black Cats corner, Johnson falling flat on his face as he tried to intercept and Danny Rose then allowing masked half-time replacement Fernando Torres to surge inside off the left.

When Branislav Ivanovic netted a second, deflected goal minutes later, Sunderland were a spent force.

It was Chelsea’s fourth game in nine days, but Sunderland looked the side running on empty.

Gone was the slick passing of the first half, replaced by inprecision, careless giveaways or simply a surrender to going backwards again.

The attacking penetration was minimal as Sunderland reverted to type.

Di Canio admitted himself afterwards that fitness is an issue which needs to improve, and it inevitably will do under his stewardship.

The pertinent question is whether the regime on the pitches of Cleadon can reap rewards in time to save Sunderland’s Premier League status.

The gap with the abyss has been reduced to the most slender of margins – just goal difference keeping them above third-bottom Wigan –and points are now the only currency which Sunderland can deal with.

However encouraging the first-half display, however many positives Di Canio can take from the opening exchanges of his regime, it ultimately counts for nought.

Di Canio realised the parameters of his task when he took charge of the Stadium of Light – a required nine points from seven games left little margin for error.

There is nothing subdued or understated about another nul points and one less game to play.

Twitter @sunechograeme