Paolo Di Canio got just about everything he wanted from his players at Stamford Bridge yesterday, apart from the most important thing.
That there was not even a point to show from a Sunderland performance against Chelsea that had passion, intelligence and no little skill about it was difficult to accept.
Sunderland were superb in the first half, the best they have been in months, as they harried Chelsea off the ball and had more shots on goal in 45 minutes than they had managed in the past few games.
They thoroughly deserved their first-half lead, but alas for them the game changed 60 seconds after the restart when the luckless Matt Kilgallon scored an own goal that owed everything to misfortune rather than bad play.
Chelsea then took control of the match for a crucial 20-minute period, which was enough for them to win, and relegation for Sunderland is slightly more of a realistic fate than it was before the weekend.
However, if Sunderland can play like this for the next six games – starting on Sunday at St James’ Park – they will at least give themselves a chance.
You could not help but be impressed by the way Di Canio somehow breathed life into a group of players who had looked dead in the water. He also managed to make wearing a golf jumper under a suit somehow look cool.
The Sunderland fans sang the manager’s name as he took his seat before the game – not that he spent much time sitting down. His energy on the touchline seemed to transfer itself on to the pitch and into his team.
Right from the off, something was different. Sunderland looked confident and alert. Everyone wanted the ball.
They could have scored after just three minutes. Craig Gardner won a high ball on the edge of the box, out-jumping Mikel, Stéphane Sessègnon controlled on his chest, but his shot from close range got buried in the side-netting. Di Canio had clearly got a response from whatever he’s been doing for the past six days.
Connor Wickham, preferred to Danny Graham, had an effort at goal, albeit it was always going wide, with 10 minutes gone after some decent build-up play. This drew a round of applause from his manager. You don’t score goals if you don’t shoot.
Sunderland were getting the ball from back to front with admirable speed.
But their early good work almost came undone on the quarter hour mark when a high cross from Eden Hazard struck the arm of Kilgallon. This season, that means a penalty, but referee Neil Swarbrick was oblivious. Kilgallon, however, was the hero three minutes later when he twice blocked Demba Ba’s shots after the ball deflected off the Sunderland wall following David Luiz’s free-kick.
And within 20 seconds, Sessègnon broke up field, ably supported by a number of red-and-white shirts, he switched play to Johnson who did himself no favours by going back on his left foot and his shot was blocked by Luiz’s face.
Gardner showed the fight Di Canio has been looking for with a hefty challenge on Ba that resulted in a 25th-minute booking. The midfielder was slightly unfortunate in that he did get the ball first before his boot flew high.
Wickham was having an outstanding game. The teenager beat Luiz in the air more often than not, or at least won a free-kick by enticing a foul.
Too often this season, in his rare outings, the ball simply bounced off him.
The half looked to be petering out without a goal when Hazard headed straight at Simon Mignolet two minutes before the break, but as had been the story up to that point, Sunderland broke quickly and with great purpose on the counter-attack.
Sessègnon, all flicks and tricks, escaped Chelsea’s challenges and set up Wickham for a chance and his shot came off Luiz for a corner.
And then came a wonderful moment for the 2,000 or so Sunderland fans.
Johnson put in a terrific cross to the front post and O’Shea’s flick towards goal proved too much for Chelsea full-back César Azpilicueta, who volleyed into his own net.
The entire Sunderland bench went mad, apart from the man in charge who stood absolutely still.
Those in red-and-white almost sprinted into the dressing room at half-time to receive what they hoped would be some kind words and a pat on the back. But 60 seconds after the restart it all went wrong.
Fernando Torres, who had been introduced at the start of the second half, did well to take the ball forward and feed Oscar, who was in acres of space just outside the box. Mignolet smothered his shot, before the ball came back off Kilgallon’s ankle and rolled into the net. It was genuinely unlucky.
Sunderland’s fans and maybe some of the players would have feared the worst – they were right to.
It was 2-1 on 55 minutes. A corner was only cleared to the edge of the area where Luiz opted to shoot, his effort being deflected low past Mignolet by the quick-thinking Branislav Ivanovic via the back of his boot.
Sunderland went back into their shell as Chelsea kept them in their own half for a period.
Juan Mata came close to a third when he got off a shot on the hour that was pushed past the post by Mignolet. Then Oscar, on the half-volley, went wide from 18 yards.
Danny Rose got a booking on 62 when Hazard’s turn left him stamping on the Belgian’s foot, before a Torres header looped over when Mignolet was off his line.
Di Canio then made a change, James McClean replacing Sebastian Larsson, who had worked hard. This made a difference as Sunderland pushed further up the park, causing Chelsea a few problems.
A Johnson step-over took him past Mikel, but his curling effort that didn’t quite curl enough.
Wickham took a bloody nose from the elbow of Luiz, who was extremely fortunate not to be booked. He was in some pain, but Di Canio wasn’t impressed by the way he gingerly got himself back into action (what’s Italian for ‘it’s a nosebleed, son, get on with it’?).
As time ticked on the next goal, you felt, would be Sunderland’s, but they ran out of time, just in this game, not the entire season. If Di Canio can inspire more performances such as this one, then all is not lost.