Carlton Cole scored a superb late winner for Chelsea to send
bottom-of-the-table Sunderland a step closer to relegation in a tight
contest at the Stadium of Light.
With just five minutes remaining, Substitute Cole combined with Jimmy
Floyd-Hasselbaink before turning and curling a left-foot shot past
Thomas Sorensen to hand Chelsea three valuable points in their chase
for Champions League football.
The home side had gone ahead through a 12th minute Sean Thornton goal,
though Chelsea equalised with a deflected Gianfranco Zola volley
before England under-21 international Cole broke Black Cats hearts.
Claudio Ranieri's side were made to fight all the way for the three
points as Sunderland turned in their best performance for months but
still could not avoid a club record-equalling ninth successive league
Bolton's win over Manchester City earlier in the day means Mick
McCarthy's men could effectively be only one game from relegation, and
while that has been seemingly inevitable for some time, their
performance was worthy of more.
Indeed, the home supporters among a crowd of 40,011, who have
delivered more than their fair share of boos in recent weeks, gave
their side a standing ovation on the final whistle despite the
knowledge that their fate is all but sealed.
McCarthy has promised that if his side are to go down, they will go
down fighting, and that philosophy had clearly had an effect as his
players produced an excellent opening 45 minutes.
The manager went for broke by throwing Marcus Stewart and Kevin Kyle
up alongside Kevin Phillips in attack, and the ploy worked as the
Blues found life increasingly uncomfortable.
Kyle, so often the target of the critics in the stand, proved a real
handful while Phillips looked as sharp as ever, but it was Stewart who
helped to fashion the early breakthrough on 12 minutes when he sent in
a cross which was deflected by Mario Melchiot.
The ball dropped for Frank Lampard, but he could only head it as far
as Thornton, who controlled with his chest before smashing an
unstoppable volley past Carlo Cudicini.
It should have been 2-0 five minutes later when Kyle's wayward header
from a Thornton corner fell for Stewart at the back post, but he sent
the ball agonisingly wide as he slid in at full stretch.
Chelsea had their moments, but two superb interceptions by Talal El
Karkouri denied Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and then Melchiot, while
Thomas Sorensen saved from Zola after the Italian had deftly
controlled Graeme Le Saux's long ball.
But the visitors emerged in more determined mood after the break and
signalled their intentions from the off as Zola tested Sorensen with a
curling right-foot effort and then Cole, on at the break for Enrique
de Lucas, shot over from close range.
Cudicini kept out Gavin McCann's long-range effort as the home side
rallied, but Ranieri's side were back on terms just seven minutes into
the half when, after Cole had headed down William Gallas' cross,
Zola's shot was deflected past Sorensen by the unfortunate El Karkouri.
It could have been even worse for the Black Cats seconds later after
Hasselbaink raced clear and rounded the Dane before slotting home, but
referee Dermot Gallagher ruled that he had handled the ball on his way
to goal and chalked the effort off.
The game became increasingly tense as both sides struggled to create
chances, but it was Sunderland who began to look the more dangerous,
Cudicini stretched two when McCann tested him with a perfectly-struck
volley which he had to beat away as it dipped under the crossbar.
But just as it looked as though McCarthy's men would get something out
of the game, Cole turned smartly on Hasselbaink's shot pass before
blasting a left-footshot past Sorensen.
Thornton came within inches of an equaliser with three minutes
remaining when his free-kick clipped the outside of the post and ran
to safety on an afternoon when the margin between success and failure
proved agonisingly small.
MAM OF THE MATCH: Frank Lampard (Chelsea): Controlled
the midfield with another good all-round performance
Sunderland: Sorensen, Gray, El Karkouri, Bjorklund,
Williams, McCann, Thornton, Kilbane (McCartney 86), Phillips, Kyle,
Subs Not Used: Poom, Babb, Proctor, Arca.
Booked: El Karkouri.
Chelsea: Cudicini, Gallas, Desailly, Terry, Melchiot, Morris,
Lampard, De Lucas (Cole 45), Le Saux, Zola (Zenden 88), Hasselbaink
Subs Not Used: de Goey, Huth.
Ref: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).