Jose Mourinho’s side stretched their lead at the top to seven points but Sunderland’s splendid resistance at the Stadium of Light at least scattered a few crumbs of hope for nearest pursuers Southampton and Manchester City, who meet on Sunday.
Chelsea’s other floundering heavyweight rivals — Manchester United, who beat Hull City 3-0, Arsenal, who won at West Bromwich Albion with a Danny Welbeck goal, and Liverpool, who beat Stoke City 1-0 despite dropping captain Steven Gerrard — were also grateful for Sunderland’s dogged effort.
Gus Poyet’s Sunderland team, who have become rare pests for Mourinho as Chelsea’s conquerors in last season’s League Cup and the side which ended his 78-match unbeaten league record at Stamford Bridge, could even have pinched another win if Adam Johnson had not spurned two late chances.
Chelsea, nowhere near as sharp as in their midweek Champions League dismantling of Schalke 04, dominated proceedings but were held for the third time this term as they moved clear of second-placed Southampton and nine points ahead of champions City.
Mourinho, far from disappointed, felt it was a “a good point” against a Sunderland side which Poyet, a former Stamford Bridge favourite, reckoned had “defended for their lives”.
“Only one team tried to win from the beginning, the other team didn’t. They defended a lot and they defended well,” said Mourinho. “Defending a lot and well is not a crime. They were successful in their approach.”
At Anfield, the inspirational Gerrard was axed on the 16th anniversary of his Liverpool debut but Brendan Rodgers’ surprise decision was vindicated as they arrested their slump.
There have been plenty of questions over the form and effectiveness of Gerrard, 34, during 11th-placed Liverpool’s recent travails but even dropping him to the bench did not seem to alter their sluggish form as they laboured for 75 minutes.
The captain came on with a quarter of an hour left, amid deafening cheers, and Liverpool finally broke through with Glen Johnson’s 85th-minute header.
Arsenal also gained welcome relief amid their worst start to a season for 32 years thanks to Welbeck’s header.
The victory, reflecting Arsenal’s domination, did not stop manager Arsene Wenger having to field questions about a fan banner which said, “Thanks for the memories but it’s time to say goodbye”.
“I don’t want to comment on that. I try to do my best for this club that I love,” responded Wenger.
The win moved Arsenal up to sixth on 20 points as Manchester United consolidated fourth with 22 after first-half goals by Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney and a brilliant strike from Robin van Persie after the break sealed their win over Hull.
Smalling’s 16th-minute opener was only awarded after goalline technology showed his shot had sneaked over the line.
“It was our best match when you see the full 90 minutes. We have dominated. I think now we are on the right way,” added the Dutch manager, who felt Van Persie had scored a “beautiful” goal after recent criticism of his performances.
Once again an injury clouded United’s joy with record signing Angel Di Maria limping off in the first half with a suspected hamstring problem.
At the other end of the table, Queens Park Rangers came through an entertaining clash at Loftus Road, beating Leicester City 3-2 to move above both their opponents and Burnley, Charlie Austin finally snatching the points with a 73rd-minute winner.
Former England forward Joe Cole, 33, flitted back into the limelight with the opener for Aston Villa in a 1-1 draw at Turf Moor, while Newcastle United’s charge up the table was halted at West Ham United where Aaron Cresswell got the winner. (Reuters)