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Sunderland achieve their 'miracle' on Easter weekend
Full-time: Chelsea 1 Sunderland 2
WHEN Sunderland lost at Tottenham at the start of the month, Gustavo Poyet talked of needing a “miracle” to have any chance of Premier League survival. How apt then that his players chose the Easter weekend to enact the most remarkable of rebirths.
The Black Cats are not safe yet – not by a long way – but a situation that looked all but irretrievable a couple of weeks ago suddenly offers a realistic route to salvation.
A seven-point margin to safety has shrunk to three in the space of two barely-believable matches, with Sunderland following up Wednesday's dramatic draw at Manchester City with an even more unfathomable victory over Chelsea.
There were so many sub-plots at Stamford Bridge, with Jose Mourinho's unblemished Premier League home record going up in smoke, Fabio Borini effectively handing the title to his parent club, Liverpool, and a referee based on the Wirral playing a crucial role in ensuring the trophy heads to Merseyside.
From a Sunderland perspective, though, only one thing mattered. Three precious points courtesy of a first league victory in ten matches. With the point of no return beckoning, Poyet's players have hauled themselves back from the brink. The key question now is whether they can go on to finish the job.
“There hasn't been a point where we thought, 'It's over',” said Borini, who added yet another crucial goal to his burgeoning collection as he rolled home the decisive penalty with eight minutes left. “There have been difficult times, but we've always kept believing and still believe now.
“The Tottenham game was a big defeat, but that probably told us to wake up. Maybe we needed that. We had to show a lot of character after the Tottenham game, and produce belief and desire on the pitch. If you show that, then the performances and results will come.
“We have closed things up, but it is the Cardiff game that gives us a chance to actually start moving above teams. It is our Champions League final. That's the way it feels for me and the team.”
Given that they remain three points adrift of safety, Sunderland will still almost certainly have to win at least two of their final four matches to have any chance of survival.
On the evidence of Saturday's magnificently committed display, that should not be a problem. There have been false dawns before this season though, and it remains to be seen whether the events of the last week were genuinely the turning of a corner or just another example of Sunderland setting themselves up for a fall.
When the Black Cats beat Newcastle in October, they followed up with a calamitous defeat at Hull that saw them finish with nine men. The following month's home win over Manchester City preceded a tame defeat to Stoke, while February's win at St James' came before another hugely damaging loss to Hull.
This time, it has to be different, but after weeks of scrambling around for a formation and starting line-up that works, at least Poyet will be heading into the decisive finale with a settled and functioning side.
The ill-fated experiment with a five-man defence has been abandoned, and while Santiagio Vergini has deputised capably at right-back in the last two matches, Phil Bardsley's return from suspension will be welcomed.
Liam Bridcutt's unavailability has enabled Lee Cattermole to patrol the base of midfield on his own, and while there have been some errant passes along the way, the Teessider's ferocious competitiveness has helped drag his team-mates out of the mire.
Further upfield, Seb Larsson has offered more than an out-of-sorts Ki Sung-Yueng had provided in recent games, while the promotion of Connor Wickham to the starting line-up has been the act that, more than any other, has sparked Sunderland into life.
Strong, mobile and far more motivated than either Jozy Altidore or Steven Fletcher has appeared for most of the season, Wickham has provided a focal point to his side's attacking and held the ball up superbly with his back to goal. Crucially, he has also proved adept at finding the target, quadrupling his Premier League goals tally with three in the space of four days.
“I always say to the players, and Connor is no exception, that you have a chance now, but it's up to you,” said Poyet. “It's not me – I'm not there.
“I can't follow the ball for the rebound, it's for him to see it, and if he takes his chances, he's going to be a hero.”
He took the first chance that came his way at the weekend, with his close-range strike ensuring Sunderland were only behind for six minutes after they conceded another early goal.
Willian swung over a corner from the left, and Samuel Eto'o held off the attentions of Cattermole to volley home at the first time of asking. It was the 17th goal Sunderland have conceded from set-pieces this season, a desperately poor record that must be addressed in the final four games.
The visitors' equaliser also came from a set-piece, although there was much to admire in the move that led to Wickham stabbing past former Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer from the edge of the six-yard box.
Marcos Alonso found himself in acres of space as Seb Larsson lined up a corner, and duly ambled towards the box. Larsson spotted him, and while the Spaniard's low strike was parried by Schwarzer, Wickham reacted quicker than John Terry to convert the rebound.
Chelsea had chances to restore their lead, with Vito Mannone deflecting Branislav Ivanovic's header onto the crossbar before producing a fine double save to deny Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah.
Sunderland survived a vociferous penalty appeal when Borini's header struck Alonso's arm, but Chelsea had run out of attacking ideas long before the game swung dramatically with eight minutes left.
Cesar Azpilicueta slipped to concede possession to Jozy Altidore, and bundled into the American as he attempted to rectify his error. It was a borderline call, but there was definite contact between the players and Azpilicueta's tackle was clumsy in the extreme.
Borini stepped up, and after scoring memorable goals against Newcastle, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City already this season, the Italian rolled home his spot-kick to top the lot.
“Whatever happens to me at the end of the season, I want to finish by helping my team-mates keep Sunderland in the Premier League,” he said. “It would be a great achievement for us considering how difficult things were looking a few weeks ago.
“It would mean a lot personally too because you don't want to have a relegation on your CV and you don't want to have been part of something so bad for a club that means a lot to you.”