It may be a unique experience for Rafa Benitez when he walks out at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. For once in his brief Chelsea career, he may not be the manager at the centre of press attention, for across the tunnel from him, in the away dugout, will be sitting Paolo di Canio.
The often controversial, seldom boring, Italian takes control of his new charges for the first time, and with his appointment dogged in controversy, all cameras will doubtless be paying due attention to him. With two such controversial figures in the dugouts, it may be easy to forget that this is what should only be a sideshow to what is the most important issue. That is which of the two teams can secure the vital three points.
For Chelsea, with Tottenham now moving above them into third place, and Arsenal hot on their heels, following a lacklustre performance and defeat at Southampton, a win is vital to their interests. Securing of a top four finish is the absolute minimum for Chelsea. If they do not achieve this, and thereby fail to qualify for the Champions’ League next season, all bets concerning top line managerial appointments and big name signings may well disappear into dust. The lure of trawling around the backwater clubs of eastern Europe in a second successive pursuit of the unloved Europa League trophy is not the beguiling prospect sought by the games top performers.
Looking at the rotation plans of Benitez, it seems likely that the previously renowned axis of Terry and Lampard will have played against Rubin Kazan in the aforementioned competition, meaning a likely exclusion from the Sunderland game. It would be no tremendous surprise however if Benitez turns to Lampard for this most important of ‘must win’ games.
From a Sunderland perspective, with the club in apparent free fall towards relegation, anything above a defeat would be seized upon as a ‘turning the corner’ moment. With talismanic striker Fletcher side-lined, and skipper Cattermole likely to be sitting alongside him, it may not be the best time for them to face the European Champions, but di Canio is nothing if not emotionally charged, and it’s certain that he will have his team full of adrenalin and ready for the battle.
On form, even with the misfiring Torres leading the attack – after all he did score twice in the return fixture at the stadium of light – it’s difficult to see anything other than a Chelsea victory, but blues fans shouldn’t get too relaxed about the result. Already this term they’ve seen a two goal half-time lead frittered away into a tame home draw against Southampton; a home defeat to QPR, and after leading 2-0 at after 87 minutes at Reading, a calamitous collapse saw them only walk away with a single point.
It’s a cliché of course, but the key to the game could be the first goal. If Chelsea get it, and do it early, they should roll on to a comfortable win. If however it falls to the Black Cats, or even remains goalless until half-time, the stress and nervousness will undoubtedly return. Then it could go either way.