IF Sunderland had played all season like they played the first half at Stamford Bridge yesterday, there would never have been a question of them not staying up.
If they continue to play like that in the next half-dozen games, they will stay up.
But the real question is whether Sunderland have left it too late for the Paolo Di Canio effect to rescue them.
For there’s no doubt that the Italian has had an instant effect on players whose performances in recent weeks has been lacklustre, lackadaisical and, at times, bordering on the lazy.
Yesterday, those same players showed concentration, determination and application. They chased and harried the opposition, competed hard for second balls, ran for each other, got forwards and backwards in support of each other.
As a result, they managed to contain a somewhat surprised-looking Chelsea before snatching a lead to take into half-time.
It needed two fortuitous second-half goals – both deflections – to rescue Chelsea from a potentially embarrassing situation.
Although the Black Cats left Stamford Bridge with their winless streak extended to nine games, they will take some encouragement from this performance and their tails should be up for the derby game against Newcastle this Sunday.
The new head coach made three changes to the Martin O’Neill side which lost to Manchester United the previous week.
Connor Wickham and Matt Kilgallon were surprise selections – with Danny Graham and Titus Bramble both carrying injuries – and tactically, Seb Larsson was preferred, on the left of midfield, to James McClean.
Chelsea made five changes to the side which beat Rubin Kazan in the Europa League on Thursday night – the most notable one being the inclusion of former Newcastle striker Demba Ba up front.
And it was the rested Ba – ineligible for European duty during the week – who posed his side’s greatest early threat – captain John O’Shea making a couple of important challenges on the forward and Kilgallon producing a particularly brilliant block.
The game got under way in glorious sunshine, with Sunderland fans having made themselves heard in the run-up to kick-off, happily chanting the name of Di Canio, who acknowledged them with a subdued wave when he emerged from the tunnel.
Sunderland were promising in the opening dozen minutes of Di Canio’s reign – with Wickham using his physique to cause Chelsea problems, while Stephane Sessegnon shot into the side netting from an acute angle, on the right of goal, in the third minute.
Kilgallon’s superb interception came from a 17th-minute Chelsea free-kick which David Luiz drove into and beyond the Sunderland wall, Ba shaping to shoot from close range when the ball was cleared.
Sunderland used the element of surprise to hit Chelsea on the break with a sweeping move upfield when ended when Sessegnon teed up Johnson, whose early-taken effort was diverted out for a corner courtesy of the face of Luiz.
It was a promising opening spell from Sunderland, who continued to work hard to deny Chelsea space and time and took self-belief from seeing their tactics work.
They suffered a blow in the 25th minute when Craig Gardner’s keenness to stop a counter-attack saw him fling himself at Ba with a foul which could easily have earned a red card from referee Neil Swarbrick.
As it was, the yellow was bad enough, ruling him out of the derby and depriving Sunderland of one of their few naturally aggressive players for the trip to Newcastle.
If Gardner knew he was going to miss the Magpies game, he didn’t let it affect the standard of his play – he and his team-mates kept up the workrate which prevented the flashy skills of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata shining too brightly.
Watching them eagle-eyed was Di Canio, constantly shouting instructions and reminding his players of their duties off the ball.
Alfred N’Diaye’s failure to claim a ball which should have been his attracted the new head coach’s fury, as did a poor Johnson cross.
But, with half an hour gone, Sunderland could make claims to have been the better side.
And, having matched the current European champions stride for stride, they took a 45th-minute lead after a Wickham shot was deflected out for a corner from the right.
Johnson sent a dipping ball in, O’Shea nodded it goalwards at the near post and full-back Cesar Azpilicueta, a couple of yards off his goal-line, could only divert the ball past Petr Cech.
It was a stunning end to a rousing first half for Sunderland and if they could have kept Chelsea out for any length of time in the second half, they might have had a platform from which to get something from the game.
As it was, they conceded in the 47th minute, despite coming out positively and immediately winning a corner thanks to Wickham’s efforts.
Chelsea used the opportunity to launch a counter-attack, with Fernando Torres – on for Ba, who had been injured by Gardner’s foul – riding challenges from Johnson and Danny Rose as he sprinted up the left wing.
When he centred, keeper Simon Mignolet had raced off his line to block the shot from Oscar that he knew was coming – but the point-blank stop on the edge of the area saw the loose ball ricochet off the boot of the covering Kilgallon and it spun away to trickle over the line.
Rose might have stopped it, but he slipped on the line and could only watch helplessly in the centre of goal as the ball rolled slowly into the corner to his right.
Despite the goal, Chelsea failed to dominate – though the two own-goal men almost contrived to create a third – when Azpilicueta’s shot was headed narrowly over the Sunderland crossbar by Kilgallon in the 54th minute.
The winner was only seconds away though.
Sunderland did not close down quickly enough from another attack and that allowed Luiz a long-range pile-driver which took a fatal deflection off fellow centre-half Branislav Ivanovic on the penalty spot, the ball flashing into the opposite corner to Chelsea’s opening goal.
It was only then – with Sunderland’s stamina and spirit waning and Chelsea boosted by their 10-minute comeback – that the hosts began to really dominate.
It remained attritional stuff – Chelsea far from their best, but Sunderland simply lacking the energy to raise their game again.
In the end, it was a respectable defeat – Sunderland avoiding some of the poundings they have received in this fixture over the years – but respectable defeats are no longer acceptable in the current situation.
With other results going against them, Sunderland’s position worsened over the weekend.
If they are going to get out of this they need victories, and the early signs are that the club has acquired a manager who can be an inspirational and intelligent driving force.
Ultimately though, it will not come down to the manager but to the players and it is clear that in that direction there is real cause for concern.
Sunderland were excellent in the first half against Chelsea and if they maintain that standard, they will win some of these final six games.
The problem is that the losses continue to mount – leading scorer Steven Fletcher and skipper Lee Cattermole out for the rest of the season, striker Danny Graham and defender Titus Bramble joining the injury list; midfielder Gardner suspended for the next couple of crucial games.
On top of that, Sunderland have a problem with second-half fade-out and are going into a game against a side whose last three home games have yielded last-minute winners.
War-weary Sunderland fans therefore can be forgiven if they go into the derby with no confidence whatsoever.
It will make no difference to the new man in charge – natural fighter Di Canio will have more than enough self-belief for all of them.
But it will not come down to the manager on derby day – it will come down to the players still available.
And the questions now are can they absorb enough of Di Canio’s ferocious self-confidence and can they benefit from enough of his fitness work to see them through?