A SUNDERLAND HOST Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday with both sides looking to arrest their recent poor form.
The Black Cats are winless in three but have posted just two victories all season, whilst Rafael Benitez’s Blues have not won in seven, with the 52 year-old Spaniard overseeing the last three games – 0-0 draws against Manchester City & Fulham and 3-1 reverse at the hands of West Ham.
Benitez hardly endeared himself to Blues’ supporters during his Liverpool days with comments about Chelsea’s supporters and Roman Abramovich’s bankrolling of the club.
However, three games without victory are hardly likely to have softened the feelings of the West Londoner’s support towards the Madrid-born boss.
Whilst Fernando Torres’ form is yet to pick up under Benitez, one man who has benefitted from the former Valencia boss’ appointment is right-back Cesar Azpilicueta.
The 23 year-old Spaniard only joined the club from Marseille in the summer but has thus far failed to dislodge Branislav Ivanovic at right-back. Benitez though, has been quick to move Ivanovic to centre-half and introduce Azpilicueta at right-back, a move which has seen David Luiz drop to the bench.
Pamplona-born Azpilicueta has represented Spain at U16, U17, U19, U20 and U21 level, as well as turning out during this summer’s Olympic Games.
After three seasons and 99 league appearances with Osasuna in his homeland, Azpilicueta moved to Marseilla where he spent just two full seasons before joining Chelsea this summer for a fee reported to be £7m.
Despite his relative youth, the 5’10 full-back has already tasted international success, winning the 2007 U19 European Championsips and the 2011 U21 European Championships as well as two French League Cups and two French equivalents of the Community Shield.
In midfield, Juan Mata is in blistering form despite the departure of Roberto Di Matteo.
Deployed in one of the three supplementary striking positions behind the main forward, the 24 year-old already has five Premier League goals this term – one less than he scored during the whole of last season.
Unsurpriosingly his seven goals in all competitions make him the Blues’ top-scorer thus far this season.
The diminutive attacker was an Andre Villas-Boas signing, but already Benitez is the 20-cap Spaniard’s third manager at Stamford Bridge.
Despite his superb from since moving to the Premier League from Valencia in a deal worth £23.5m last summer, the Real Madrid youth product features sparingly for Spain – a strong indicator of the depth in their considerable talent pool.
Another one of the multitude of attacking talents available to Di Matteo is Brazilian international Oscar.
The lithe 21 year-old only signed for the Blues during the summer but has immediately become an important part of the attacking triumvirate behind Torres.
Two excellent goals on his Champions League debut against Juventus in September – including one stunner – were enough to introduce the former Sao Paulo and Internacional playmaker to English football.
Nimble and fleet of foot, the 5’11 attacker has already bagged four goals and four assists in 18 appearances fort he club.
Chelsea will be without John Terry (knee) and Frank Lampard (calf), though Daniel Sturridge should be fit to return following a hamstring problem.
Martin O’Neill won’t be able to call on Wes Brown just yet, but Titus Bramble should be fit enought to take Matt Kilgallon’s place.
John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole are both out.
Steven Fletcher will have jab and his reaction will determine whether or not he features.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Bardsley (c), Bramble, Cuellar, Rose; Johnson, Larsson, Gardner, McClean; Sessegnon; Wickham.
Chelsea: Cech (c); Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Moses, Hazard, Mata; Torres.
Referee: Mr M Halsey.