Chelsea Preview - Away, January 14
SUNDERLAND HEAD to the capital this Saturday for arguably the toughest match-up of the Martin O'Neill reign to date.
Chelsea might be short of form but as they reminded our dear friends up the road earlier in the campaign, they can still tear teams apart.
Andre Villas-Boas has not enjoyed the best of starts to life at Stamford Bridge and appears to be struggling to stamp his own authority on the side.
With January now upon us and the African Cup of Nations soon to be underway, things are now even worse for the Portuguese who has been robbed of the services of Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou.
Nicholas Anelka has also recently departed for China and strapping centre-half Alex is of course out of the picture too as he searches for his next club.
Indeed, so short are the Blues, the former Porto boss has handed defender Sam Hutchinson a squad number. Nothing remarkable in that you might say, but the 22 year-old defender retired in the summer with a knee injury before making a sensation return towards the tail end of last year.
Despite all their problems though, there are clearly still some immensely-talented players in the West Londoner's squad.
One such player was brought to Stamford Bridge by Villas-Boas himself, Juan Mata.
The 23 year-old Spanish playmaker has proven an instant hit with four goals and countless thrilling displays in his first 17 games.
A Spanish international, Mata spent four years with La Liga giants Valencia before a £23.5m move to the Premier League this summer. Capable of playing wide, as a false No.10 or as a deeper-lying dictator the Burgos-born midfielder looks set for a long and successful career on these shores.
Another AVB signing was Oriol Romeu from Barcelona. The Catalan giants retain a buy-back clause for the 20 year-old which highlight just how highly-rated he is at the Camp Nou.
Captured for just over £4m, the deep-lying playmaker-cum-defensive-midfielder is a carbon copy of Barca's Xavi but without quite the same level of quality. However, if the midfielder continues to perform the way he has in recent weeks he could find himself back in his homeland sooner rather than later.
Up front is one of England's own, Daniel Sturridge. Signed from Manchester City after refusing a mega-contract with the Citizens, Sturridge arrived at Chelsea in 2009 but has had to wait until this season to make his first-team breakthrough.
The England U21 cap spent a hugely-beneficial loan spell at Bolton Wanderers during the second-half of last season, notching eight league goals in just 11 league starts.
Deployed wide of Drogba more often than not, the 6'1' forward has 10 league strikes in just 16 league starts for the Blues. With Drogba leading the Cote D'Ivoire for the next month, the Birmingham-born forward might find himself truly thrust into the limelight if Fernando Torres fails to fire on all cylinders.
Villas-Boas has three players rated as 'doubtful' for the visit of the Black Cats in Sturridge (hip), Jon Obi Mikel (hamstring ) Branislav Ivanovic (hamstring). Michael Essien remains a long-term injury.
Sunderland are without defensive pair Wes Brown and Titus Bramble whilst Craig Gordon and Frazier Campbell are nearing fitness.
Michael Turner is fit again and could challenge Matt Kilgallon for his berth at centre-half.
Chelsea: Cech; Bosingwa, Luiz, Terry (c), A.Cole; Meireles, Lampard, Ramires; Mata, Torres & Malouda.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Gardner, O'Shea, Kilgallon, Bardsley; Larsson, Cattermole (c), Vaughan, McClean; Sessegnon; Bendtner.