London - Chelsea start life after Jose Mourinho with a vital showdown against Sunderland on Saturday as the crisis-torn Premier League champions look to climb away from the relegation zone.
Prior to his sacking on Thursday, Mourinho insisted that while the club was struggling near the bottom three, they were not in a relegation fight.
But if results don’t improve quickly under Mourinho’s replacement it will be harder to reject the idea that the west London team are in deep trouble.
Monday’s 2-1 defeat at Leicester ended Mourinho’s second spell in charge and left Chelsea in 16th spot with 15 points – two places and one point above the bottom three.
And if Sunderland, currently lying second bottom, become the fifth Premier League side to leave Stamford Bridge this season with three points, they will move level with Chelsea, adding to the log-jam at the foot of the table.
Whoever is in charge of Chelsea for the visit of Sam Allardyce’s side will have to coax a vastly improved performance from a group of players who have proved alarmingly inconsistent this season.
Mourinho maintained his side had turned the corner in recent weeks, particularly in the Champions League where they progressed to the knock-out stage as the winners of their group.
But the home defeat to Bournemouth left Mourinho stunned and his angry reaction to the Leicester loss highlighted the rift between the Portuguese and his players.
Serbia midfielder Nemanja Matic summed up the confusion surrounding Chelsea’s form when he told said: “I cannot explain why consistency has been so difficult to achieve.
“I don’t know what happened to us (against Leicester). In the game against Porto, a very good team, we played very well, we scored two goals and created chances, but we were like another team on the pitch against Leicester.”
Mourinho’s relationship with a number of senior players has come under scrutiny, and in particular Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, the two outstanding performers during the title-winning campaign.
The Portuguese coach appeared to question Hazard’s reaction to a hip injury that forced him out during the first half against Leicester, although the Belgium international’s father insisted Hazard was injured.
Thierry Hazard told Het Nieuwsblad: “These are stories that are invented when things go bad. Do you really think Eden would feign an injury in such an important match? No, he really hurt his hip.
“It’s difficult to estimate (when he will be back), but let’s hope he’s playing again soon.”
Mourinho’s absence also impacts on Sunderland’s preparations as they might face a rejuvenated side and Black Cats manager Sam Allardyce said: “I’m not sure whether it’ll make it harder or not to be honest.
“Everybody expects a reaction when a manager gets sacked, and sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.
“I always think it’s quite a sad state of affairs when a team of players actually plays better when their manager has been sacked. I find that quite sad.
“I find it irresponsible from a players’ point of view, especially when they come out after the game and say, ‘We’ve done that for the manager’.”
Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher insists a tough run of fixtures over the festive period holds no fears for the relegation-threatened club.
The Wearsiders follow their trip to the Bridge with a Boxing Day visit to Manchester City, before Liverpool visit the Stadium of Light on December 30.
It’s a testing trio of games Fletcher says Sunderland will relish.
“You’ve got to play the big teams at some point in the season, so why not play them one after another?” he said.
“Chelsea are still a world class team with the same players who won the title last season.”
Sunderland defender Younes Kaboul is available after recovering from a bout of illness, and former England forward Jermain Defoe, the club’s seven-goal top scorer, could return.
English Premiership weekend fixtures:
Saturday, December 19
Stoke City v Crystal Palace – 17:00
Everton v Leicester City – 17:00
Manchester United v Norwich City – 17:00
Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur – 17:00
Chelsea v Sunderland – 17:00
West Bromwich Albion v Bournemouth – 17:00
Newcastle United v Aston Villa – 19:30
Sunday, December 20
Watford v Liverpool – 15:30
Swansea City v West Ham United – 18:00
Monday, December 21
Arsenal v Manchester City – 22:00