Sunderland Making Mark on Title Race

Steve Bruce has led his Sunderland club to wins over Chelsea and Manchester City, along with draws against Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham. (Photo Courtesy Struway)

By Joe Meloni

Seven months from now, either Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United will claim the 2010-11 English Premier League Championship. While headlines throughout the world will inevitably hail one of the clubs’ star players as the deciding factor in the title race – whether to excellence or injury – another group of players, likely to finish in the middle of table, may provide the goals and moments that give us our champion for this season.

Sunday afternoon, Steve Bruce’s Sunderland walked into Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and lit the table-leaders up for three goals in a dominating shutout win. Entering the match, Chelsea averaged more than two goals per game, while allowing a tidy 0.42 goals per match in 12 Premiership games this season. In those 12 games, the Blues pieced together a 9-1-2 record, and stood three points clear of second-place Manchester United with a game in hand and five points clear of third-place Arsenal. For fans in North London and Manchester, a pass was issued entering the weekend to pull for Bruce’s Black Cats in hopes of preventing the gap between Chelsea and their rivals from growing.

Naturally, the odds tilted in favor of the Blues entering the match, but Bruce’s club has demonstrated an ability to perform well and steal points from the league’s premier sides. On Sept. 18, Sunderland’s leading scorer tucked the fumbled rebound off a corner kick past Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia in the 95th minute to secure a 1-1 tie with the Gunners. Cries from the Arsenal defenders aside, the play illustrated the mentality of Bruce’s players.

Through the first half of Sunday, Chelsea and Sunderland traded changes and possession while trying to make the game’s breakthrough. However, further evidence of the Black Cats’ determination shone in the final moments of the first half. Waiting for the officials to blow the half dead, Chelsea’s defenders allowed Sunderland’s Nedum Onuoha to dribble through their end and slip a shot past goalkeeper Petr Cech.

While some may argue this goal demonstrates more about Chelsea’s inexperience in the middle, hark back to Bent’s desperate strike against Arsenal, and its clear this is hardly an isolated occurrence. Bruce’s players learned from their boss that winning in the world’s most competitive soccer league depends less on talent than on execution and will. Based solely on ability, Sunderland can’t compete with Chelsea, Arsenal or any of the league’s other premier clubs. However, this season alone, its already managed a 1-1 tie with Tottenham, a scoreless draw with United and a 1-0 win over Manchester City to compliment the four points its taken from London’s finest clubs.

Had Bent not equalized at the last possible moment against Arsenal two months ago, the Gunners would be tied with Chelsea atop the table at the moment. Looking down the road, should Arsenal finish in second by two points or fewer or miss European qualification by the same margin, Sunderland’s effect is obvious. Of course, the same case could be made for Newcastle or West Brom, who managed to take points from the Gunners at Emirates Stadium this season. However, those clubs didn’t complete similar feats against the four other clubs currently occupying the five top spots in the Premier League table.

Sunday’s victory, however, appears to mean a little more to Bruce than the other results. This wasn’t a closely contested 1-0 win over a club, such as Manchester City, hopelessly attempting to fit its over-price square pegs into Roberto Mancini’s poorly shaped holes. Chelsea is one of the top five clubs in the world; one that appeared certain to run away with the league championship just three weeks ago.

“They’ve done fantastically well,” Sunderland manager Steve Bruce said of his players, according to the Associated Press. “I’m delighted for them. It’s not often you come to Chelsea and win 3-0.”

In fact, the loss was Chelsea’s first at the Bridge since March and its first to Sunderland since 2001.

More than even the three points earned from the win stood the emergence of gifted young players who represent a sparkling future for the club in England’s Northeastern corner. Twenty-four-year-old Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan arrived from Rennes in September of this year to compliment Lee Cattermole, the 22-year-old holding midfielder who already serves as club captain.

Whether or not Sunderland proves club to unseat the league’s normal contenders in years to come will remain an unlikelihood until it finds a way to defeat clubs, such as Aston Villa and Fulham, on top of its consistent giant-slaying efforts. For the time being, though, Bruce appears pleased to cost teams the title, as he and his club complete their journey from promotion in 2007 to contention in the future.

Joe Meloni can be reached at Joe.Meloni@theSoccerGuysOnline.com.

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