LONDON, England, January 14 – Fernando Torres failed to end his four-month Premier League goal drought but the striker could at least claim an assist for Frank Lampard’s flukey goal that gave Chelsea a narrow 1-0 victory over Sunderland at Stamford Bridge.
The Spain striker sent an acrobatic volley crashing against the bar before the ball found its way into the net off the knee of Lampard in the 13th minute.
That was enough to secure three valuable points that maintains Chelsea’s interest in the title race.
But they were fortunate to hold onto the lead against spirited visitors who had a number of good opportunities to level and were left frustrated after a second half claim for a penalty was turned down.
Chelsea had failed in their efforts to conclude the £7 million signing of Gary Cahill in time for the Bolton defender to feature in this match.
Instead, Cahill watched his new team-mates from an executive box, having undertaken a medical on the morning of the game.
That meant David Luiz and John Terry were again paired in central defence by Andre Villas-Boas while Torres led the attack in the absence of Didier Drogba, away on international duty with Ivory Coast.
And initially it looked as though Villas-Boas might have cause to regret the failure to tie up the Cahill deal as the home backline struggled to cope with Sunderland’s vibrant start.
Luiz betrayed his weakness for a rash challenge when he was shown a yellow card after upending Nicklas Bendtner and Chelsea keeper Petr Cech was tested by the resulting free kick from Sebastian Larsson.
Chelsea looked much sharper at the other end of the pitch with Torres in particular offering a greater threat than he has done in recent weeks.
The striker set his sights on goal with an 11th-minute header that drifted narrowly wide.
But the volley he produced two minutes later that set up Lampard’s goal was a reminder of the Spaniard’s best days at Liverpool before his troubled past 12 months.
Torres connected sweetly with Juan Mata’s deep, right wing cross, only to see his effort hit the underside of the bar and bounce into the net off his team-mate’s knee.
Sympathy inevitably extended to Torres, who last scored a Premier League goal in September.
Confirmation this would once again not be the striker’s day came midway through the second half when he was booked for diving only for television replays to show he was tripped by Sunderland defender Phil Bardsley inside the visitors’ penalty area,
Torres’ continuing frustrations, however, were a side issue for Villas-Boas, who was far more concerned with claiming three points.
And once Chelsea had established the lead, Sunderland struggled to gain a foothold back in the game.
As long as the Blues failed to get the second goal, however, there was always the risk Martin O’Neill’s side could recover and Bendtner came within inches of levelling with a first time shot in the 33rd minute.
Torres responded with a shot on the turn that also drifted wide and there was little doubt Chelsea ended the first period in control of the game.
Sessegnon started the second half as he had the first with another testing run but Villas-Boas’ side quickly settled to dominate possession.
But their continuing failure to find a finishing touch to their impressive approach work meant they continued to live on their nerves, particularly when they suffered a double scare midway through the half.
First referee Phil Dowd decided Ashley Cole’s 58th minute barge into the back of Bendtner was not worthy of a spot-kick, prompting a furious reaction from the visitors’ bench.
Then five minutes later James McClean missed a clear opportunity when he shot wide from six yards out after being picked out by Larsson’s low cross.
Chelsea escaped and Villas-Boas was able to introduce Michael Essien for the last 17 minutes as the midfielder made his first appearance of the season.
Sunderland continued to press and Craig Gardner and Bendtner both missed good chances to level in the dying minutes.