Chelsea – Sunderland 1-2, who can stop Liverpool now?

chelsea v sunderland

Chelsea’s Willian challenges Fabio Borini of Sunderland, right, during thePremier League match at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Sunderland’s Fabio Borini deals huge blow to Chelsea title bid.

Fabio Borini may never eclipse this contribution as a Liverpool player. The Italian loanee edged up to the penalty, awarded harshly against César Azpilicueta eight minutes from time and with those on the home bench still seething, to throw Mark Schwarzer off balance before easing the ball into the net. With that one conversion, while breathing life into Sunderland‘s desperate attempt to avoid relegation, the Italian simultaneously handed his parent club the initiative in the title race. The Premier League title is Merseyside’s to claim.

This was a twist few had foreseen in a campaign that has already defied logic. José Mourinho’s 77-game unbeaten league sequence in this arena had been curtailed by the division’s bottom club, a team without a win in the elite since early February, with the decisive goal converted by a former Chelsea player. Borini is the youth-team graduate who, having meandered nomadically from Roma to Swansea to Liverpool in the years since departing Cobham, had found opportunities so limited under Brendan Rodgers that he was shipped out for the season in search of first-team football. Chelsea have used the loan market to inflict plenty of damage on other contenders, most notably via Romelu Lukaku. This was them being subjected to a dose of their own medicine.

The award of the penalty was too much for the hosts to take. Mike Dean had, at best, offered an erratic refereeing display, having opted against penalising Adam Johnson for planting his studs in Azpilicueta’s chest in the first half, or to grant the hosts a spot-kick when Ramires leapt to convert from close-range only to be edged away by Seb Larsson. The official had also turned a blind eye to the Brazilian’s apparent retribution, an arm flung back at Larsson, but this was an afternoon of choked penalty appeals – there were heated cries for handball against Marcos Alonso – until an assistant referee raised his flag nine minutes from the end. By then, after the drip feed of perceived injustices, Dean’s authority felt undermined.

Azpilicueta’s foul on Jozy Altidore was not clearcut, the linesman’s consideration perhaps swayed by the fact the full-back had never managed to recover his poise having initially slipped on the touchline to liberate the forward. He slipped again as he closed down on the American with contact unclear, though the decision did prompt flashbacks to Ramires’s stumble under pressure from Steven Reid that had earned a stoppage time reprieve in the home draw with West Bromwich Albion back in November.

Chelsea were apoplectic, their title challenge wrecked by Borini’s calm finish. Rui Faria’s livid reaction on the touchline once the penalty had been converted reflected exasperation, though the fact it took three of the coaching staff to restrain him and usher him down the tunnel made it feel utterly shameful. Mourinho even tugged his compatriot back by the hair to prevent him escaping Phil Dowd, the fourth official, and confronting Dean face to face. The referee merely sent the assistant to the stand. His sanction will be hefty.

The possibility of Ramires’s season also now being over for the glance back and swing at Larsson will depend upon whether Dean witnessed the incident clearly. He had seemed well positioned but waved away Larsson’s protests. If sanctioned retrospectively, the Brazilian will receive a four-game ban for his second red card offence of term, both within a little over a month. He had felt a pivotal player for the trip to Anfield next weekend though, in reality, if Liverpool prevail at Carrow Road on Sunday then the gap to second place will be five points and Rodgers’ team will retain the initiative even if they are beaten by Mourinho. More pertinent will be the ramifications of this result for victors and vanquished in the weeks ahead.

Chelsea must summon a response at Atlético Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final on Tuesday, trying to blot out the memory of the lead that was surrendered so wastefully here. Samuel Eto’o had eased too simply away from Lee Cattermole to convert Willian’s corner and, even if Connor Wickham’s conversion from close range after Mark Schwarzer’s poor handling restored parity, there had been other opportunities to forge ahead. Yet Vito Mannone turned Branislav Ivanovic’s header on to the crossbar, then denied Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah. After the interval, chances were flashed wide until André Schürrle drew a fine save from the Italian.

The profligacy was just as costly as the flashes of defensive vulnerability with Wickham’s goal the first reward for a visiting team in this arena for 840 minutes, stretching back to Manchester United’s visit in January. The virus that had sidelined Petr Cech will not prevent him featuring in Madrid, and that constitutes cause for relief given the Australian veteran, Chelsea’s oldest Premier League player at 41 years 195 days, was understandably rusty throughout. Too much of the home side’s display seemed uncharacteristic.

Sunderland might concede this was freakish as well. Their last league win had been at St James’ Park on 1 February, a distant if glorious memory, and it had been on home games against Cardiff City, West Brom and Swansea City that they had pinned their faint hopes of survival. Now, having climbed to within three points of Norwich, hope is renewed even if there will be expectation when the Welsh club visit the Stadium of Light next weekend. “Probably we accept we are the smaller team in matches like this,” said Gus Poyet, whose team had come so close to winning at Manchester City last Wednesday. “We play Cardiff next week. How are we going to convince everyone in England we’re the smallest team in England? No chance.

“Maybe we’re the better team. Are we? It’s a mental thing. The strongest team mentally will go and win the game. This whole relegation battle is incredible, heart-breaking, difficult, but we’re going to keep fighting. We look a completely different team to last Wednesday afternoon, but I just want to keep this level of performance from now on in.” They will need just that if they are to achieve their season’s objective. Chelsea will need the pressure to choke Liverpool at the last if they are to revive their own aspirations to regain the title. The advantage lies with Liverpool.


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