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Apr 7, 2013

Chelsea and the Di Canio circus

Eventually, inevitably, it came. Not Fernando Torres's form, not Chelsea's winner, but a flashpoint about the Sunderland manager's much-discussed politics.

"How silly you are," Paolo Di Canio said as he responded to a question about his tattoos while the Sunderland press officer firmly ordered the post-game conference to be closed.

Of course, despite a very specific request that all questions stick to football, the press conference served to illustrate the circus that the manager carries with him for the moment.

To a degree, it is actually Sunderland's attempted suppression of the issue, and the discord of some of their core support such as the Durham miners, that prolongs it. For Di Canio, though, that circus went well beyond his political views.

• Lythell: Chelsea grind out vital win over Sunderland
• Randall: Signs of hope but no points for Sunderland

At one point, as the Sunderland manager's attention was directed to Loic Remy's goal for QPR against Wigan on the screen to his left, he slammed the desk with his fist in what may or may not have been mock disgust. Then there was the elaboration on how different and difficult it is to prepare for the likes of Oscar and Eden Hazard rather than Accrington Stanley: "If you are a good manager, like I am, you can change."

Check that: "No, I'm a very good manager."

Finally, there was the implicit criticism of Martin O'Neill and his team's physical preparation. "I'm not going to say they're not fit. It's not the fittest team in the world. But, but, but... we are going to work and give them energy in the next few days and weeks. We're obliged to give more energy. We've studied, 24 hours a day, how to give them something more without giving them problems or causing damage."

As far as the actual football goes, at least, that is the most relevant question about Di Canio's appointment. For all the baggage his perceived politics may bring, his personality would seem exactly the sort to also potentially provide the jolt that Sunderland evidently need to escape this increasingly pressurised struggle for survival.

At the start of this match, there did seem to be something different about the side. In contrast to the dull flatness of the end of the O'Neill era, there was some impressive movement and liveliness between the lines.

Conor Wickham was interchanging well with Stephane Sessegnon, and Adam Johnson provided an outlet on the right. And, even if Chelsea recovered from the point where Sunderland were actually creating more and better openings, the first goal was arguably deserved.

As the improvised right-winger Johnson swung in a corner, John O'Shea beat both Petr Cech and the home defence to a header that Cesar Azpilicueta could only divert even more emphatically into his net. Amid the cheers, a minority of Sunderland fans sang Di Canio's name.

Di Canio sang the praises of his team for that period. "I'm more than happy with the first half. We started very well. Chelsea obviously dominated when they kept the ball, but they would against any side at Stamford Bridge. But we were well organised, ran very hard and fully deserved the lead. I'm very happy with that first half. The second half is different."

Whether that difference was down to simply fitness, as Di Canio suggested, or the superior finesse of the Chelsea players will be something the Sunderland boss has to find an answer to well before this season is out. For all the initial energy the Italian provided, it was troubling that Sunderland were ultimately unable to stave off a return of the lifelessness that has haunted them in the last few months.

For Rafa Benitez, though, the manner in which Chelsea got back into the game was hugely encouraging and, evidently, that wasn't all down to Sunderland's energy levels. It was largely down to Fernando Torres. Brought on at half-time for Demba Ba, who had suffered the rough side of Di Canio's urgency in a rash Craig Gardner tackle, the Spaniard's impact was immediate.

Straight from the kick off, the way in which Torres tore at the Sunderland defence and completely opened up the game was genuinely reminiscent of his most rousing form at Liverpool. It was electric.

Okay, it wasn't lasting. He didn't score in the rest of the match and didn't really equal that kind of effect again, but it was the turning point.

With Sunderland's backline sufficiently disoriented and displaced from Torres' run, they were not sharp enough to properly react to Oscar's deflected shot, and Matthew Kilgallon could only deflect it into his own net.

Within seven minutes, Chelsea had sealed the win. Further reflecting the kind of stuttering, stop-start game it was, it came from another deflection.

At least this time, however, the player could try to claim it was intentional. In celebrating, the excellent Branislav Ivanovic certainly acted like it was. After David Luiz had lashed a volley towards goal from a corner, the ball deflected off the Serbian's heel and past Simon Mignolet.

Di Canio was left lamenting the fact his team conceded two such damaging strikes in such quick succession; Benitez, though, was praising the improved form of Torres and the related fitness of his own team.

"I spoke about how he [Torres] was training well ahead of Rubin Kazan, and he had the confidence of scoring in that game. You could see today he was fresh and ready. We have two options [with Ba as well], different options. We have two options we didn't have before."

They also have a situation that was much clearer than before as well as a corresponding confidence. Indeed, the manner in which Benitez could rotate between Ba and Torres to win here arguably reflects how he has managed to balance his squad to just about keep Chelsea competing on several fronts.

Most impressively, after coming through what will undeniably end up as the most physically intense eight days of their season, the Blues have ended that four-game spell on course for the last four of the Europa League, definitively in the last four of the FA Cup and firmly in the top four of the Premier League.

Although there are still very real questions over whether that can remain the case, this spell augurs well.

"After playing four games in eight days, I'm really pleased," Benitez said. "The most important thing was the result. We try and play well because it's easier playing well to win more games. We have a lot of information, analysing things and we pick this team."

Di Canio has resolved to put his team's fitness levels under similar scrutiny to salvage this situation.

But, while there remains some doubt about the Italian's appointment, Benitez was left to reflect on a relatively unified Stamford Bridge.

"I try to concentrate on my job," the Spaniard said. "I do the same, but obviously people are asking me and the feeling is everybody has realised we have to stick together and support the team. That was my message before, and that is still my message now.

"It's always important. The best nights here are with the great atmosphere. It's always very positive."

One potentially significant event for Sunderland, though, was that on the screen in the press room: Shaun Maloney had equalised for Wigan. By then, Di Canio had just gone, and didn't return despite a few requests for another reaction.

He had said his piece on a few issues, though, and it is telling that the relegation fight is only one of the most pressing.

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