Chelsea 3 - 1 Sunderland
Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, left, scores his side’s first goal against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
In this strangest of seasons for Chelsea came the strangest of afternoons and, watching on alongside Roman Abramovich, Guus Hiddink may well have wondered what he has let himself in for, having agreed to become the club’s interim manager for a second time. There were chants of support for the man he is replacing, jeers for the players that remain, and a performance that veered from the sublime to the stuttering in what felt like a blink of an eye. Welcome back Guus, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Mutiny in the air as Chelsea’s players are pilloried after José Mourinho’s exit
Dominic Fifield at Stamford Bridge
That should perhaps be expected from a club that appears incapable of escaping drama and at the end of another tumultuous week in their history the most important thing was that they recorded a first win in four league matches. This, as incredible as it continues to sound, was a relegation scrap and Chelsea did enough to prevail.
One can only wonder what José Mourinho made of it all, especially upon hearing Chelsea had taken a 2-0 lead, though goals from Branislav Ivanovic and Pedro, inside 13 minutes on the back of a display brimming with verve and vigour, drive and desire. The Portuguese, who was at the Amex Arena watching Middlesbrough, managed by his former assistant at Real Madrid Aitor Karanka, beat Brighton, may well have wondered why they could not do the same for him for the bulk of this campaign, and in particular at Leicester on Monday when yet another insipid display by the champions led to Mourinho accusing his players of a “betrayal” and he, in turn, losing his job as Chelsea manager for the second time in eight years.
It is a question which many Chelsea supporters have also been asking and they used this match to make their frustrations and fury clear. Mourinho’s name was chanted loud and lustily while some spectators held aloft banners declaring their love for their former leader and disgust with those in blue. Cesc Fàbregas’s and Diego Costa’s names were booed prior to kick-off and after Pedro had scored came the first chant of “Where were you when we were shit?”
The atmosphere was poisonous, not to mention bewildering as a group of fans became increasingly irritated by the sight of their team playing well. But they were perhaps right to ask where this combination of style and substance had been in recent weeks. As one banner declared: “You let José down. You let us down.” Another called Fàbregas, Costa and Eden Hazard, who was absent here due to the hip injury he picked up at the King Power Stadium, “rats”.
The players may argue that their display came from a collective sense of liberation given they no longer have Mourinho’s intense methods and scathing words wearing them down. With the assistant coach, Steve Holland, in charge, they certainly played like a group reborn. The passing was crisp, the pressing purposeful and the movement relentless as Sunderland came up against a tidal wave of blue right from kick-off.
Ivanovic struck after just five minutes, sending Willian’s corner into the roof of the net with a powerful header, and also played a role in Chelsea’s second, directing a cross into the area that Pedro smashed past Costel Pantilimon.
Sebastián Coates was at fault for both goals and so it was no major surprise to see the defender replaced by Adam Johnson on 23 minutes as Sam Allardyce, the Sunderland manager, looked for a way to get his team back into the contest. But Chelsea kept on coming. Fàbregas and Nemanja Matic were dominating midfield while ahead of them, Willian, Oscar and Pedro were proving impossible to pin down. Diego Costa, meanwhile, was being a nuisance for all the right reasons and came close to scoring twice before the interval.
Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas booed by disgruntled Chelsea supporters
Oscar made it 3-0 via a 50th-minute penalty, which led to more chants in support of Mourinho. It was perhaps apt, then, that Chelsea began to perform, defensively at least, like they so often had under the Portuguese.
Thibaut Courtois pushed Younès Kaboul’s header on to the knee of Fabio Borini to hand the Italian his first goal of the season and from there nervousness spread within the hosts’ ranks. Borini came close to scoring again shortly afterwards and, following more poor handling from Courtois, the excellent Duncan Watmore could have scored on 78 minutes for a Sunderland team that remain 19th having lost for a third successive time.
Chelsea did have chances to extend their lead, most notably via Pedro’s 78th-minute strike, and Courtois made an excellent save from Jermain Defoe late on. But this remains a side short of confidence and poise and it will take Hiddink time to change that. His first opportunity comes with Watford’s visit here on Boxing Day. The 69-year-old will also have to win over the home crowd. He did that during his first spell here in 2009 but the task is more difficult now given the resentment that has developed following Mourinho’s sacking.
The anger is clear, as it also clearly remains inside Costa given he stormed away from this stadium having been booed by some fans after being substituted late on. Mourinho has gone but the strife remains. At least Chelsea have a victory to cheer this Christmas.