The hours after Chelsea's 0-3 loss to Sunderland were dominated by missives on the English Premier League leader's vulnerabilities, but with a day's reflection, it seems like we learned more about the Black Cats than the Blues. After all, we already knew that Chelsea's midfield was thin and (until they see the returns of Micheal Essien and Frank Lampard,) weak. A defense which last year went through spells of both dominance and inconsistency also seems to lack depth. These are things we knew at the start of the season, with Sunday serving as a rare convergence of weaknesses. Don't expect it to keep happening after November drifts away.
Unfortunately for Blues supporters, the team's struggles look set to extend for a couple more weeks, after which their schedule finally catches up to them. Chelsea faces two more matches without Essien and Lampard, road fixtures at St. Andrew's and St. James'. After that they return home to face Everton, a team whose size gave healthy Chelsea teams problems last season. Then, Chelsea gets Spurs, Manchester United, and Arsenal before closing the calendar year against Bolton. Oh, wait. That's fifth place Bolton.
We knew the fixtures would even out for Chelsea, putting the impetus on the Blues to claim as many points as possible before a tough December schedule. But with their midfield problems to persist through the rest of November, Chelsea will be hard pressed to get the full points they need from Birmingham City and Newcastle United. While you could see even a weakened Chelsea handling a struggling Brum and the inconsistent Toon, you could also see those matches ending 0-0 and 1-0, Newcastle having already beat Chelsea in the League Cup.
That combined with the threat of a slide gives Chelsea their first pressure of the season. They may need full points from their next two matches to maintain their lead through Everton. Arsenal is second, only two points back, but with upcoming matches against Spurs and Aston Villa, their schedule is actually tougher than Chelsea's. The real danger is Manchester United, still magnanimously undefeated, who get Wigan, Blackburn and Blackpool before getting Arsenal at home on December 13.
With United only three points back, their easy schedule could see them in a dead heat with Chelsea when the teams meet at Stamford Bridge on December 19. While that wouldn't be so bad - being in the middle of the title race come mid-December - allowing United to catch-up would mean Chelsea's roaring start will have gone for naught.
But let's not overlook Sunderland's accomplishment. While it's natural to worry about the implications on the title race, consider the last time Chelsea suffered a loss like this. In recent years, the Blues have lost at home to the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, but the last time a club like Sunderland came to the Bridge and won was 2003. That's when the Blues lost to Bolton 1-2, the beginning of a six match stretch where Chelsea won only twice at home. The last time Chelsea lost at home by three goals was the year before, when Manchester United won 0-3 at the Bridge. Credit to Sunderland for pulling off something we haven't seen for seven or eight years.
It was a famous win for Steve Bruce, who saw so much scrutiny after the Black Cats lost 5-1 at St. James' Park, but it may be premature to suggest Sunderland is ready to push-on and qualify for Europe. While that may seem a strange claim considering the club sits sixth, on Sunday they were the beneficiaries of a very weak Chelsea side. Though they've only lost twice in 13 matches, their relatively strong start has failed to see them put significant distance between themselves and Spurs, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Everton - clubs we thought would compete for Europe at the season's onset. Sunderland is capable of joining that group of contenders, but to do so, they will have to improve upon their good start.
Elsewhere at the Top
Arsenal has an 0-3 win at Eastlands under their belt, but there was something more impressive about Sunday's win at Goodison. Their 1-2 victory was decisive, even if a late Tim Cahill goal kept it from being obviously so. In addition, they played against a full side, something they did for only four minutes in Manchester. While the Toffees seemed to have lost the quality that had stared to emerge in the last few weeks, Arsenal deserves credit for some uncharacteristically decisive play in the final third. Great finishes from Bacary Sagna and Cesc Fabregas have the Gunners in second place, two points behind Chelsea.
That standing was held by Manchester United coming into the weekend, but their inexplicable stumble at Villa Park required a late, two goal comeback to draw a depleted Aston Villa, 2-2. Perhaps Villa deserves more credit than I'm implying, but it's not as if the claret and blue saw a number of stand-out performances. Stephen Warnock was great, Stewart Downing typical and reliably good, and Ashley Young had a great moment mixed in with one of his worst performances of the season. But this was far from a great Villa performance. It was decent, and this is a team United should have dominated. Instead, Villa was harshly done by the result, with Manchester United left with further evidence why they're undefeated but still in third place.
But you would rather be Manchester United than Manchester City, whose terrible performance against a limping Birmingham City led fans to verbally abuse Roberto Mancini post-match. The 0-0 draw, not an uncommon result for the Citizens, takes on an entirely different context then the same mid-week result against United. On Saturday, City was hosting a relegation-embattled side that, in two preceding matches, had allowed opponents to score the first two goals. Rather than use those as reasons to be aggressive, City stayed with a plan that, instead of pushing them to the top of the league, will keep them competing with Tottenham for fourth. Just like last year.
Maybe They Do Belong
Now past the one-third mark of the season, Sunderland isn't the only surprise in the top half of the league. Bolton sits fifth after their 2-3 win at Wolves. Newcastle is eighth despite failing to get three from Fulham, drawing 0-0 at St. James'.
The biggest surprise in the top 10: Stoke City, whose seven losses are the second-highest total in the league, but because the Potters have avoided draws, their weekend win over Liverpool puts them 10th, one spot ahead of the Reds. Stoke's 16 points also has them three points back of a European spot.
But the news from that match was Liverpool, of course. With back-to-back disappointing performances after last weekend's defeat of Chelsea, the upset at Anfield is looking half-aberration, half-Chelsea's fault. Neither of those factors hint Liverpool is ready to push toward the top. Instead, it's helpful to note that if Chelsea had a full team at Anfield, Liverpool may still be in the drop. They're only three points ahead of 18th place Brum.
So We Don't Forget
Rounding out the weekend's matchday:
- West Ham and Blackpool combined for nearly 50 shots at Upton Park, but only five officially tested a `keeper, leaving the match 0-0 after 90. The Hammers are still last, if unbeaten in three. Blackpool is 15th and awaits word on Mathew Gilks, who had to be removed at halftime.
- Wigan finally broke through, getting a Victor Moses goal to record a 1-0 win over West Brom. The win lifts the Latics to 17th, passing Birmingham City, while West Brom's third loss in four sends the Baggies 12th.
- And although this merited mention before, Spurs beat Blackburn 4-2, with the man they're calling Welsh Jesus, Gareth Bale, recording two more goals. Spurs were up 4-0 before double-consolation allowed Blackburn to make the final scoreline look like they might have mattered.