The Black Cats ran out 3-0 winners at Stamford Bridge last season hammering the first nail into the coffin of former Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti. His replacement Andre Villas-Boas has endured a testing start to his tenure in West London seeing his side exit the title race before the New Year and perform way below the expectations of owner Roman Abramovich. Their form over Christmas was indifferent once again with three wins followed by a similar number of draws before the home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa put more pressure on the shoulders of Villas-Boas. However his side started 2012 off in the best possible manner as winning at Wolves to stay in touch with Tottenham in third. Despite securing victory the game highlighted their defensive vulnerabilities once again with David Luiz failing to inspire confidence yet again although Gary Cahill’s imminent arrival should push the Brazilian to the sidelines. Still, they’ll need to improve at the back if they are to avoid another embarrassing defeat at the hands of rejuvenated Sunderland.
Relegation is a forgotten term on Wearside after the arrival of O’Neill after he led them to four wins from six over Christmas to catapult the Black Cats into the top half. The Irishman has worked wonders since agreeing to replace in Bruce bagging the manager of the month award for December and providing a huge lift to both football club and city. Whatever the former Aston Villa man has done at the Stadium of Light the effect has bred instant results giving supporters cause to look up rather than down in 2012. Their rapid change in fortunes has stunned a lot of doubters who predicted O’Neill’s task would be harder than he had anticipated. Despite losing against Tottenham in his second game in charge wins over Blackburn, Wigan, QPR and sandwich the stunning victory over league leaders Manchester City on New Years Day. The sheer grit and determination displayed by Sunderland in that game was indicative of the effect their new manager has had on the players. His decision to promote youngster James McLean into the starting lineup has been inspired whilst his well-documented man management skills are now getting the best out of Lee Cattermole. The Black Cats skipper has been instrumental in the clubs rise up the table in December and will be expected to rough Chelsea up on Saturday.
Chelsea 4th : 37 points
Last six: W L D D D W
Team news: Chelsea will be without leading scorer Daniel Sturridge who has a thigh injury. Jon Obi Mikel and Branislav Ivanovic also remain out.
Key Player: Juan Mata
A terrific start to life in England has seen Mata become one of the most feared wide men in the Premier League and he’ll be hoping 2012 will be just as good. His intelligent movement from his left midfield berth causes mayhem and Sunderland will need to be wary of his penchant to drift inside.
Sunderland 10th : 24 points
Team news: Martin O’Neill will be without key defenders Wes Brown and Titus Bramble meaning Matt Kilgallon is likely to keep his place.
Key Player: Lee Cattermole
We’re seeing a new side to usually ill disciplined Cattermole with a change of management bringing the best out of Sunderland’s skipper. His bulldozing displays in a withdrawn midfield role gives the back four some much-needed protection that will be vital against a rampaging Chelsea side.
Although their title hopes are all but shot Chelsea still harbour ambitions of a top four finish and should have enough to see off a Sunderland side born again under Martin O’Neill.