Chris Young’s verdict: Sunderland v Chelsea

Kieran Richardson.
Kieran Richardson.
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TWO-and-a-half months ago, Sunderland produced arguably the most staggering Premier League result in their history.

Steve Bruce’s men have admirably maintained the momentum from Stamford Bridge to foster genuine hopes of European football for the first time in almost 40 years.

But the 3-0 victory at Chelsea remains the defining point of the campaign.

Up until that Sunday afternoon, Sunderland looked in decent nick for the top 10 – beating Manchester City and drawing with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpol.

The win against the reigning Premier League champions though raised expectations among supporters and more importantly handed a massive boost to the players at Bruce’s disposal.

Suddenly, there was a swagger and confidence about Sunderland and a belief that they could mix it with the best, even away from the safe confines of the Stadium of Light.

While the result proved to be Sunderland’s catalyst to top six ambitions, it also sparked a horrifying slump from Chelsea which will inevitability cost them the chance to retain their Premier League crown.

There will be some sense of retribution harbouring among Chelsea’s ranks tonight, even if they will have been distracted by yesterday’s events surrounding Fernando Torres.

But there will also be the knowledge that Carlo Ancelotti’s men are just starting to get over the shock of their bleak run.

The absence of John Terry, Alex, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard from that game shouldn’t be underestimated.

Short of the aerial presence of injured centre-halves Terry and Alex, Sunderland’s front two of Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck were able to out-muscle the makeshift defensive pair of Branislav Ivanovic and Paulo Ferreira.

That won’t be the case tonight against a Torres-less Chelsea tonight.

Sunderland need to ensure they keep the ball on the deck and make the most of Kieran Richardson’s pace beyond Gyan rather than knocking hopeless balls forward onto Terry’s head.

Likewise in central midfield, Essien will provide the drive and Lampard the goalscoring threat which Chelsea so lacked at Stamford Bridge.

Jordan Henderson can match Essien’s energy but it is a dilemma for Bruce about who partners the 20-year-old in central midfield to replace the injured Bolo Zenden.

Lee Cattermole would be the obvious choice if his back injury has cleared sufficiently to be risked.

It would be tough on Stephane Sessegnon to throw him into the deep end just two days after training with his team-mates for the first time.

The £6m new arrival will hardly be bursting with match fitness after his fall-out with Paris St Germain and may be better served for an outing from the bench.

But if Cattermole remains sidelined, Bruce may be forced to turn to Sessegnon with Sulley Muntari unavailable until the weekend.

Sunderland need to be sharp in all areas from the off, particularly at the back to combat Drogba who provides a different prospect to the sluggish figure who was still trying to recover from malaria in November.

Titus Bramble cannot be physically bullied against the Ivory Coast striker like he was when paired against Shola Ameobi in Sunderland’s last game.

And Sunderland will have to be wary of Drogba’s ability from distance too – closing down the striker to ensure he doesn’t unleash a missile like the opener against Bolton.

The problem for Chelsea is that they are yet to rediscover the knack of endless winning sequences.

That should give Sunderland heart that Ancelotti’s men are far from the flawless unit they were last season.

The Black Cats boast a proud record against the Premier League’s big boys this season and won’t allow it to slip away without a fight tonight.

Chelsea’s riches and eagerness for revenge may deny Sunderland maximum points, but they can certainly keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Verdict: Draw