The Stoke game was bad, we can all agree on that. Whether you’re an optimist who sees it just as a bad day at the office or a pessimist who takes it as a sign that we’re about to drop, both sets of thinkers can agree that we need to do better. So will it be the clouds continuing to gather for a dark storm or will it be broken up by rays of sunshine? Rays that were perhaps first broken by Jermain Defoe’s last gasp penalty.
There’s no doubting that it will be a difficult game when Guus Hiddink brings Chelsea to the Stadium of Light, but Sunderland have dealt with tough opponents rather well lately. The win over Manchester United, the draws against Liverpool & Arsenal and the spirited, unlucky defeat to Manchester City all showed that we can mix it with the “big boys.” Chelsea may have suffered a disappointing season, by their lofty standards, but their party pooping antics against Tottenham Hotspur and dismantling of Bournemouth the previous week shows a willingness to finish the season on a high. There’s plenty of individual talent in the Blues ranks as well – Willian has been a consistent through out, Pedro has a decent seven goals and two assists to his name in his first Premier League campaign, whilst Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas have finally woken up and realised that the season has begun.
It would be surprising to see Sam Allardyce throw caution to the wind and go for broke on Saturday. Big Sam has often uttered the phrase “must not lose” and with Chelsea presenting the most difficult proposition in our last three games, a point will certainly be looked upon favourably, regardless of what Norwich and Newcastle do. Even if there are changes to the personnel are made in midfield, I wouldn’t expect to see a variation from 4-1-4-1 formation, as a solid central three will be essential to keep Chelsea’s attacking midfielders from affecting the game.
If any points at all are to be taken in the penultimate home game of the season, The Lads need to get back up to the standard they set before the draw at The Britannia Stadium. No matter what players Sam Allardyce selects for his starting XI, they can’t give Chelsea the opportunities they allowed Stoke to get. Before taking the lead, The Potters missed the kind of opportunities that you can’t imagine Diego Costa and Co. spurning. Lee Cattermole will have to channel his big game spirit that we’ve all come to love and Jan Kirchhoff will just have to, well, be Jan Kirchhoff, if we’re to stifle Chelsea’s creativity. Both players struggled to gain much control over proceedings last time out but all will be forgotten if they bounce back on Saturday.
It can sometimes be overstated how much “character” matters at this stage but just look at the way Leicester City handled their setbacks in comparison to Spurs. It does play a significant role. We know that Cattermole is capable of reacting positively to a substandard display but it’s just as important that Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul recover. The centre halfs struggled to deal with Peter Crouch in the air and were generally bellow the ability we know they’re capable of, so both players will be keen to prove that it was a one off. I’m sure Allardyce has drawn a line under it and so he should, the pair have been fantastic during their run in the side together and have been the key reason that Sunderland are now managing to keep clean sheets. If the confidence is still radiating off Kone, along with his keen eye to spot danger before it fully develops, then we’ll know that the Stoke game is well out of his mind.
The best thing for Sunderland’s confidence though will be the fact that, despite their performance, they still came away from Stoke with something to show for it. The dressing room may have been a frustrated one after the final whistle on Saturday but at least it wasn’t a dejected one – as Jermain Defoe’s penchant for coming up big for us occurred. It will hopefully galvanise the players into thinking along the lines of “Right, we’ve got away with that one. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.” If they’re focusing on what they need to do to make sure that doesn’t happen against Chelsea (or against Everton & Watford for that matter) rather than dwelling on the negatives and thanking their lucky stars, then we can keep up our run of good form.
The atmosphere on the training ground and in the dressing room has been hailed by Sam Allardyce as one of confidence and positivity. That spirit has resulted in better performances, more points on the board and some recent frustrations shouldn’t dampen the mood. The Lads have to continue to play to the level they’ve shown since the January transfer window though. Chelsea will be far from an easy game but a confident, assured performance will show that Sunderland still have the mettle required for the relegation battle and that the Stoke game was a mere blip.