Chelsea vs. Sunderland: Are John Terry and Frank Lampard Still Vital

Garry HayesFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2013

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  (L-R) Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech of Chelsea look dejected at the end of the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Villa Park on August 12, 2012 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

There was a time at Stamford Bridge when a Chelsea team missing Frank Lampard, John Terry or, heaven forbid, both Englishmen, would struggle. Not anymore it seems.

We had seen it on too many occasions, where Chelsea lacked the leadership and guile to overcome opponents without their star duo in tow. After a season of strife, however, this new generation of Chelsea stars is beginning to come of age.

Rafa Benitez's side was given a scare against Sunderland on Sunday after Cesar Azpilicueta turned the ball into his own net on the stroke of half time to put the visitors 1-0 up. Yet, with both Lampard and Terry watching proceedings from the sidelines, the Blues clawed their way back into the match to win 2-1.

It wasn't a breathtaking performance, nor was it one that would send a warning to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal—teams currently challenging with Chelsea for a top-four finish. What it showed, though, is Chelsea are beginning to find their feet after a year of transition that has been as painful in parts as it has been exciting.

The arrival of Eden Hazard and Oscar last summer injected an element of flair to the Chelsea side in the early stages of the campaign, forming a promising relationship with Juan Mata in attack.

Come November, however, that excitement had turned sour with the Blues not only losing their manager in Roberto Di Matteo, but also their way in the Premier League title race and Champions League.

John Terry suffered a serious knee injury against Liverpool to add to their woes, and with Benitez appointed manager among a swarm of protests from Chelsea supporters, the season looked all but over.

It's been a gradual process, but Chelsea have recovered. The team is rediscovering its form at a vital stage of the campaign, and while the title is long gone on account of Manchester United's excellent form, the prospect of silverware in the FA Cup and Europa League is very much realistic, as is that all-important top-four finish.

And who do Chelsea have to thank for it? The likes of Mata, Oscar, Hazard, David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic—who scored Sunday's winner—that's who. They all impressed against the Black Cats and in recent weeks have grown in stature, leading from the front in Chelsea's late-season push.

It has taken them a lot longer than many would have hoped, but this Chelsea team is not dependent on Terry and Lampard any more. Sure, they have been fine players—in fact, they still are—but whereas the pair were once the club's strength, they are becoming Chelsea’s weakness.

In the decade since Roman Abramovich brought Chelsea and appointed Jose Mourinho to make the club world-beaters, the footballing landscape has evolved. The future of Chelsea isn't focused on what won them back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006—it's about what will win them titles next season.

To do that, they need this new generation of talent that is beginning to apply itself. It seems the older generation of Terry and Lampard is not as vital.

By defeating Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinal on Apr. 1 without either on the field, Chelsea demonstrated the progress they are making. Following that up with a vital—albeit somewhat scrappy—win over Sunderland, the Blues have shown the road they are travelling is the right one.