Match analysis: Defence the real heroes of Sunderland’s Bridge success

Santiago Vergini and John O'Shea combine to take on Chelsea scorer Samuel Eto'o on Saturday
Santiago Vergini and John O'Shea combine to take on Chelsea scorer Samuel Eto'o on Saturday
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FABIO Borini had just dusted himself down on the Stamford Bridge touchline, clipped the microphone to his lapel and was ready to embark upon one part in a conveyor belt of post-match interviews.

But before the opening question was posed to the Italian, his former Chelsea team-mate Branislav Ivanovic emerged from the tunnel, ran over and jokingly moved to knee him in the unmentionables.

A beaming smile covered Borini’s face before he broke into boisterous laughter as the stony-featured Ivanovic made his way towards the exit.

It was horseplay, laced with a true reflection of Ivanovic’s feelings, as the magnitude of Borini’s penalty sunk in.

The importance of that piece of ice-cool composure from 12 yards cannot be underestimated.

It was the goal likely to have destroyed Chelsea’s title hopes and programmed Anfield as the destination on the Premier League trophy’s sat nav.

But far more significantly on Wearside, that could be the moment which sparks the most remarkable of escapes from the drop after Sunderland already had one foot in the Championship.

If it does prove to be, then Borini’s goal could be the most important one for a generation.

Yet, while Borini again displayed his remarkable temperament for keeping his head on the big occasion, the on-loan Liverpool man wasn’t the real hero in red and white, despite inevitably dominating the headlines due to the parentage of his permanent employers.

Neither was it Connor Wickham, who has matched Steven Fletcher’s tally for the campaign in five days and given Sunderland that physical presence up front which has been glaringly missing for so much of this season.

Suddenly, Sunderland’s players are delivering forward passes in the knowledge that there is someone leading the line who can actually hold the ball up.

But while Borini and Wickham sent the travelling Sunderland fans into ecstasy and provided plenty of shots of the “Miracles happen Gus” banner in the away end, the key to a first Premier League victory in more than two-and-a-half months were heroes of the unsung variety.

Defensively, Sunderland continued their knack of conceding from set pieces – it’s now 17 for the season – yet other than a couple of first-half wobbles from corners, the back four were near-immaculate, particularly the two centre-halves.

It has not been an easy couple of weeks for John O’Shea and Wes Brown, and question marks have been asked of both by supporters.

The Sunderland captain was dropped after being beaten to the ball by Andy Carroll in the costly defeat to West Ham, while Brown was at fault for two goals at Spurs before a painfully unfortunate own goal against Everton.

But they used all their experience, all their know-how and all their determination to thwart Chelsea’s attempts to create clear-cut opportunities.

There were last-gasp blocks and committed headers, but, more importantly, the organisational nous to keep Sunderland’s defensive shape firmly intact.

With men behind the ball, Sunderland showed Chelsea’s creators – Oscar, Mohamed Salah and the impressive Willian – inside, without giving them space to peppers shots at Vito Mannone from outside the area.

It resulted in too much stodgy and sluggish build-up play from Jose Mourinho’s side, who badly missed Eden Hazard’s knack of stretching defences and those late runs into the box from Frank Lampard.

Chelsea were better at the start of the second half and played with more intent, yet Sunderland’s back-line crucially boasted the doggedness to see out the storm in those first 20 minutes after the break.

Yes, Eto’o went desperately close following Willian’s lightning-quick break, while Demba Ba should have done better from 10 yards, when he lost his balance.

But two near misses in an entire half at a place as formidable as Stamford Bridge is no mean feat.

That was the real reason behind Chelsea losing huge ground in the title race, regardless of Mourinho’s undignified distraction technique afterwards.

The solidity of O’Shea and Brown rubbed off on the rest of Sunderland’s defence too.

After suffering a dip in form, Marcos Alonso has again begun to reproduce the kind of performances he showed when he first arrived at the Stadium of Light in January.

The on-loan Fiorentina left-back got forward well in support of Fabio Borini, while crucially never dived in when faced with the fleet-of-foot Salah.

On the opposite side, Santiago Vergini again looked a far happier specimen as a right-back than a centre-half.

In two games there deputising for the suspended Phil Bardsley – who will surely have to wait for a recall after finishing his two-game ban – Vergini has not been beaten for pace or exposed in any way.

He has kept his head, followed the gameplan and also been largely reliable on the ball when going forward. The on-loan Estudiantes man has looked a different proposition from the nerve-riddled displays he produced at centre-half.

But, undoubtedly, it’s a major cultural and footballing shift arriving from Argentina and, like Nacho Scocco, it takes months to bridge that gap.

Whether Gus Poyet should have looked for reinforcements from South America when Sunderland needed players to hit the ground running is another matter.

With Seb Larsson tireless in closing down Chelsea’s midfield – an irritant which saw frustration boil over in Ramires – and Mannone gradually banishing the ghosts of Manchester City after a nervy start, it added up to a platform where Sunderland could eventually grab that dramatic, late winner.

The challenge now, of course, is to ensure this isn’t a false dawn. There have been a few of those from this set of players this season.

Sunderland cannot afford to choke on home turf anymore against one of their relegation rivals.

Sunday’s visit of Cardiff is monumentally big and the incentive of potentially moving out of the bottom three is a chance which has to be taken.

Cardiff’s equally desperate need for a win should at least ensure that the Welsh outfit don’t come to the Stadium of Light and shut up shop.

By beating Chelsea, a tally of seven points from the last four games could well be sufficient to survive now, particularly as Sunderland have a superior goal difference to their three immediate relegation rivals.

However improbable it seemed, that descent towards the Championship has been halted.

The bigger test is whether Sunderland can now go upwards.

Twitter @youngsunecho