Chelsea move up to third in the Barclays Premier League after coming from behind to beat Sunderland at Stamford Bridge.
With a third game in six days, it was never likely to be a vintage performance from the Blues and so it proved, with few chances created by either side, Sunderland sitting deep and looking to counter.
It looked as though it might take something unusual to break the deadlock, and a minute before half-time Sunderland went in front when Cesar Azpilicueta turned John O’ Shea’s header into his own net.
The visitors’ lead would last just two minutes however, as when Chelsea, and substitute Fernando Torres came out from the break, he set up Oscar, whose shot was saved but then deflected into the net by Sunderland defender Matt Kilgallon.
The winner eight minutes later was no less fortuitous, Branislav Ivanovic unknowingly turning home David Luiz’s wayward shot from a corner.
What matters though is the three points accumulated to take us back above Spurs, who drew at home to Everton, and our third consecutive victory at the Bridge inside a week.
Rafael Benitez made five changes from the side which started against Rubin Kazan on Thursday. In came Ivanovic for John Terry at the back, John Mikel Obi for Frank Lampard in midfield, Eden Hazard and Oscar for Yossi Benayoun and Victor Moses behind the striker, and Demba Ba for Fernando Torres up front. Petr Cech was captain.
New Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio made three changes for his first game. Titus Bramble, James McClean and Danny Graham were out, Kilgallon, Sebastian Larsson and Connor Wickham in.
Stephane Sessegnon, so often Sunderland’s main hope of goals under Di Canio’s predecessor Martin O’ Neill, was first to find an opportunity, slamming his shot into the side netting three minutes in.
Chelsea’s rotated side was taking a little time to settle in, but Ba almost found a way in after a link-up between Ramires and Mata, only for O’ Shea to block.
Eighteen minutes in David Luiz was heavily involved at both ends, first seeing his free-kick blocked before Sunderland scrambled the ball away and broke, eventually working the ball to Adam Johnson inside the Chelsea area, where the Brazilian bravely blocked the England man’s curling shot with his head, denying a probable goal for the visitors.
Ba required treatment after being clattered by Craig Gardner, who was booked, and in his absence a Ramires header brought a first save of the game from Black Cats goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet. It had taken 26 minutes, in which time Chelsea had boasted much of the possession and territory, but achieved little in the way of breaking the deep-lying visitors down.
Sunderland had, by the looks of it, come for a point and were reluctant to commit too many men forward on their rare breaks.
Hazard’s bouncing header brought more action straightforward action for Mignolet, but there would be a twist in the tale before half-time.
A swift break allowed Wickham a shooting opportunity, but he saw his shot deflected behind by David Luiz. From the resultant corner, O’ Shea rose highest to flick towards goal and in trying to clear Azpilicueta could only divert it into the top corner.
It was the worst way possible to end what in truth had been a pretty drab first period.
Not fully recovered from the Gardner tackle, Ba was replaced at the break by Torres, whose impact from the bench was immediate.
A minute after his introduction, the Spaniard picked the ball up on the left and with space to run into, drove hard at the Sunderland defence, squaring for unmarked Oscar inside the area. The midfielder’s initial shot was well saved by Mignolet, but cannoned back towards goal and in off the legs of Kilgallon.
It had taken two bizarre goals to bring the game to life, and we did not have to wait long for a third. Fortunately it came Chelsea’s way, as when the ball dropped loose at a corner, David Luiz’s shot took a heavy ricochet off Ivanovic, and spun into Mignolet’s bottom-left corner.
Mignolet had to push another deflected effort, this time from Mata, around the post on the hour, and then saw Oscar’s powerful half-volley shake the side netting as the Blues sought a killer third goal.
Torres headed over after nice work from Mata and Oscar, while at the other end Johnson curled well wide having beaten Mikel with a sharp burst of pace.
As the game moved into its final quarter, so Chelsea lost a little of the control and momentum we previously had. Not that Sunderland were able to take advantage, with Wickham too often isolated in attack and the ball rarely sticking to his 6ft 4ins frame.
A late corner conceded by Mata provided them a rare opportunity but Cech punched effectively clear, meaning all there was left to do was survive four minutes of injury time before taking our place in the top three once more.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech (c); Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, David Luiz, Bertrand; Ramires, Mikel; Oscar, Mata (Lampard 88), Hazard (Benayoun 84); Ba (Torres h-t).
Unused substitutes: Turnbull, Ferreira, Terry, Marin.
Goals Kilgallon (OG) 46, Ivanovic 54
Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, Kilgallon, O’Shea (c), Rose; Gardner (Colback 81), N’Diaye; Johnson, Sessègnon, Larrson (McClean 70); Wickham.
Unused substitutes: Westwood, Mangane, Laidler, Mandron, Graham.
Goals Azpilicueta (OG) 44
Booked Gardner 24, Rose 61
Referee Neil Swarbrick