Fabio Borini made a pressing case for a pivotal role in Sunderland’s attempt to salvage their season with another late rescue act at the Stadium of Light.
A night which appeared to be heading for inglorious failure was rescued by Borini, whose razor-sharp instincts in the dying stages of a contest which appeared to be drifting away fom the home side will have been noted by Gus Poyet.
Without them, he might have been sifting through the wreckage of another spirit-sapping night for his struggling Sunderland.
Thanks to the Italian, who plundered the latest of equalisers after a second half that Chelsea had dominated, Poyet can celebrate progress. Surely it must mean a more extended role for Borini in the future – not least with so many big fixtures on the horizon for the Black Cats.
There have been noises about the Italian heading back to Liverpool in the New Year but his late strike was exactly the sort of fillip Sunderland required on a night which veered between the sublime and the deeply, deeply troubling. He managed to steer a loose ball past Chelsea’s reserve goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer after Jozy Altidore’s path was blocked by a clutch of blue shirts.
Before then, there was further evidence Sunderland’s greatest opponent in this relegation remains themselves.
Even with the prize of a semi-final of a major Cup competition in front of them, the Black Cats could not cure themselves of the own goal affliction that has infected their efforts to bounce back under the more measured stewardship of Gus Poyet. There was less intent about Lee Cattermole’s inadvertent slide into his own net under pressure from Frank Lampard, but it still went down as another bit of friendly fire: their sixth own goal in 11 games.
As Poyet himself says, one or two would be misfortune. Six is downright kamikaze for a team that – like the England cricketers who have just surrendered the Ashes Down Under – seem to specialise in imploding after giving themselves a decent start. Last night a foundation of sorts was laid in a first half in which Sunderland were competent and collected in possession, nullifying the threat of the fringe internationals Jose Mourinho picked for this encounter. Within 40 seconds of the re-start the collapse was underway as they ceded another own goal.
It simply cannot go on. This was effectively a free hit for Poyet ahead of the more serious business of Norwich on Saturday, although the manager’s team selection spoke of a boss who was interested in reaching the latter stages of a competition which has reverted to type after the fairytale stories of Swansea and Bradford last year.
In the absence of progression, Poyet would have settled for progress but there was little to warm the soul here. For long periods of the second half his increasingly animated antics on the touchline told of a manager becoming increasingly agitated with players who continue to make elementary errors when the pressure is on.
It is unlikely Poyet will forget that as the team head towards a Premier League game which will be of serious significance on Saturday.
Norwich loom ominously on the horizon but the manager was given a few healthy hints on how his selection should go – with Craig Gardner using one of his last Black Cat lives while Emanuele Giaccherini furthered his own case with a decent display.
If you could not fault their fighting spirit and the way they hung on when the game seemed to be running away from them, there were long passages of play that would have troubled the manager.
One-down and heading for injury-time, it was not looking like a good night. You would not have guessed it was going to go that way at half-time as an attritional battle played out at the Stadium of Light.
It was, in truth, a first half short on quality and incident. If a sparse home crowd found it short on entertainment they would have been heartened by a Sunderland performance full of determination and whch just about edged a disappointing first 45 minutes. Poyet was true to his word and retained his big hitters – barring the ill Steven Fletcher – for the visit of a Chelsea side who were much changed but still retained an ominous amount of international calibre talent in their starting line-up.
They began with a burst, with the lively Schurrle dashing into the box before aiming an angled drive straight at Vito Mannone.
The Italian goalkeeper, not quite fully fit but in goal due to Sunderland’s lack of healthy senior options, coped with it well enough to allay fears about his condition.
Frank Lampard then lined up to have a crack at Sunderland’s goal before Ashley Cole handed out a warning of Chelsea’s incisive movement by bamboozling Ondrej Celustka before sending an ominous fizzing pass that somehow eluded a batch of blue shirts.
It would be wrong to class it as one-way traffic, though. There is an air of vulnerability about this Chelsea team that you would hardly associate with Mourinho’s previous vintage and had Sunderland opted for a better option in the final third, they could have put the Blues inconsistent back four under a measure of pressure in those early stages.
They certainly retained possession in the way Poyet would like them to do and the midfield battle was even enough.
The deployment of Emanuele Giaccherini just behind the hard-working Jozy Altidore gave them a dash of devilment and Adam Johnson was skipping down the wing with enough intent to suggest that something might happen out wide.
However, their biggest opportunity of the first half came when referee Anthony Taylor waved away strong appeals for a handball after Andrea Dossena’s cross struck the elbow of Chelsea right-back Cesar Azpilicueta. The decision was not as clear cut as the Sandro handball whichwas somehow ignored when Tottenham visited Wearside a fortnight ago but on another night, with another official it might have been given to the home side.