Chelsea emphatically proved there is life without their big-name African quartet with a stunning seven-goal demolition of Sunderland at Stamford Bridge this afternoon.
With Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou, and John Obi Mikel all on international duty at the African Nation Cup and Chelsea not in the best form of late in general, many observers felt that this could be the time for the chasing pack to really put pressure on the Premiership leaders.
But on the evidence of this display however, those same players could have trouble forcing their way back into the side.
The win enabled Chelsea to equal the most goals they have ever scored in a top-flight game and was just reward for a simply stunning performance.
Sunderland will point to the fact that they were short of several first team players including Michael Turner, Anton Ferdinand, and Lee Cattermole but it’s questionable whether they would have been able to live with this Chelsea side even had those players been available.
With the unavailability of Drogba and Kalou, Ancelotti decided to revert to a formation that Chelsea fans will be more familiar with the 4-3-3 with Joe Cole and Florent Malouda in support of Nicolas Anelka, and it worked a treat.
Within 20 minutes Sunderland were 3-0 down, a high-energy Anelka, chomping at the bit to make an impression from the first whistle, opening the scoring with just eight minutes on the clock following an exquisite through-ball from German captain Michael Ballack.
On 17 minutes it was two when Florent Malouda, in the starting lineup despite recently expressing his unhappiness at a lack of first team starts, picked up the ball, ran unchallenged at the heart of a desperately poor Sunderland defence, and placed the ball into the corner from the edge of the box with his right foot.
Five minute later came the goal of the game from the world’s best left-back Ashley Cole. Taking a ball from the imperious John Terry down with one touch, he jinked inside Lorik Cana before elegantly dinking the ball past a bemused Marten Fulop with the outside of his boot.
It was a goal that even his namesake Joe Cole would have been proud of and was the 18,000th goal in Premiership history, a worthy landmark for a quite brilliant goal.
The fourth arrived on 34 minutes and the scorer was no surprise, Chelsea’s Mr. Reliable Frank Lampard volleying home an Ashley Cole cross.
Sunderland could have been forgiven for packing up shop and going home at that stage but managed to keep at it four until halftime with Ballack, Ashley Cole, and Anelka all failing to extend the lead after more impressive approach work from Chelsea.
So comfortable were the Blues that they could even afford to withdraw Captain John Terry and Ashley Cole at halftime—for Alex and Yury Zhirkov—and still maintain their momentum.
Sunderland keeper Marten Fulop, who was actually enjoying a good game despite conceding four, prevented a fifth right at the start of the second half after pushing a tremendous long-range drive from Anelka onto the bar and post.
But it was his defence that was to let him down again when Ballack strolled into the area completely unmarked to head home another cross from Cole—Joe Cole and not Ashley this time—to make it 5-0 on 52 minutes.
With Sunderland heads dropping even more, they unexpectedly gave their fans something to cheer about when Bolo Zenden, back at one of his former stamping grounds, made the most of a Kenwyne Jones knockdown to beat the underworked Peter Cech with a shot into the corner on 56 minutes.
Within nine minutes however, order was restored when Fulop made his only mistake of the afternoon, failing to deal with a cross from the substitute Zhirkov to leave Anelka with an open goal from the edge of the box which the enigmatic Frenchman duly cashed in on.
Fulop then prevented an Anelka hat trick, somehow denying the rampant front-man from six yards, before he gratefully saw a Joe Cole header come back off the post.
Chelsea were not to be denied a seventh however when Anelka turned creator, crossing for Lampard to grab his second with a header.
Sunderland took a tiny consolation with the final goal of the game as Darren Bent turned the ball into the net to bring a miserable afternoon for themselves and the thousands of fans who travelled down from Wearside, to an end.
The win maintained Chelsea’s one-point lead over Man United at the top—who beat Burnley 3-0 in an unconvincing display—having played a game less, and put them six points clear of Arsenal who face Bolton at the Reebok Stadium on Sunday.