Regardless of how one might feel about the departure of Martin O’Neill from Sunderland this week, one thing is for certain: Stamford Bridge will be alive with intrigue and excitement at 3pm this Sunday when Paolo Di Canio makes his return to the Premier League in the Sunderland dugout.
Di Canio's long term future at Sunderland will depend greatly on his relationship with Ellis Short as much as results, but immediately in his sights will be Roman Abramovics European Champions and footballing juggernauts in blue. His passion and spirit seems to be exactly what the Black Cats need right now, but will this be enough to challenge the strength and experience that Chelsea can bring to the table?
Question marks have been raised about Di Canio's temperament since he left Juventus in 1993 after a row with Giovanni Trappatoni. Following a year at Napoli he moved to Milan and after another spat, this time with renown disciplinarian Fabio Capello, he was banished to the footballing outpost of Scottish football, only to find success with Celtic and win the SPFA Player of the Year award. His arrival at Sheffield Wednesday commenced seven exciting years in English Football and his various successes and deeds do not need to be mentioned here, well documented and famous/infamous as they are to us all.
As a youngster, Di Canio was labelled fat and awkward by his peers but against the odds he turned himself into a footballer capable of inspirational brilliance. His raw human spirit and determination made the difference at Swindon Town, where he drove a freshly relegated and morale-sapped team back into League One as Champions on 93 points. His first game as manager at Swindon was against Crewe Alexandra, which his team won 3-0. Chelsea are no Crewe Alexandra however, and anybody who saw Sunderland's uninspired performance against Manchester United last week will know he has a job on his hands to ensure safety.
Sunderland are a team that have relied heavily on the skill and creativity of Stephane Sessegnon for too long. The emergence of James McClean and the arrival of Adam Johnson promised to lift this burden from his shoulders but instead they have folded under the pressure, with a poor run of results sapping confidence. Sessegnon is the only Sunderland player who seems to act instinctively and decisively in the last third of the field and some clear instructions about how to penetrate the Chelsea defence will be vital. A strong-minded blood-and-thunder display from Sunderland may see them fight off Chelsea long enough to earn a scoreless draw, which would be a fine start to his reign and a big confidence boost to Sunderland’s squad and fans.
Finding the win against the odds will require sound tactical thinking in order to find the perfect balance between attack and defence, as well as the ability to summon mythical levels of confidence and spirit among his men. Di Canio surely has the latter but he is up against a wily and seasoned tactician in Rafa Benitez? Crucially, Benitez needs a result tomorrow more than Di Canio, given that Sunderland are hardly expected to beat Chelsea away from home and Chelsea need points in order to gain a vital top four finish. Could Sunderland produce a famous win utilising counter attacking football, with Sessegnon, McClean and Johnson finding a new lease of life?
Di Canio once famously said that he 'cannot turn a chihuahua into a rottweiler, only a proud chihuahua.' Many football fans wouldn’t bet on a proud chihuahua winning at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The thing is, challenging the odds has always been something of a Di Canio specialty.