LONDON, England, April 7 – Chelsea ruined Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio’s debut as the controversial Italian was left to rue his new side’s misfortune in a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Di Canio’s appointment as Martin O’Neill’s successor last weekend was greeted with a storm of negative headlines about his extremist right-wing political views, but more worrying for Sunderland fans was the decision to thrust a volatile character with no top-flight managerial experience into a relegation dogfight.
The former Lazio and West Ham forward has taken charge of a team in freefall and their situation is even more perilous after a frustrating afternoon in west London extended their winless to nine matches.
Initially it seemed Di Canio was about to mastermind a dream debut as Cesar Azpilicueta’s own goal gave Sunderland a deserved lead on the stroke of half-time.
There was no lack of effort from Sunderland, but Di Canio’s luck was out as Matthew Kilgallon’s bizarre own goal handed Chelsea an equaliser and Branislav Ivanovic netted the winner with a strike he knew little about.
Di Canio now has six games to prove he hasn’t been cursed after crossing paths with the Black Cats, while Chelsea go into the final weeks of the season in upbeat mood after securing a third successive win in all competitions.
A gruelling week that started with an FA Cup triumph against Manchester United and featured a Europa League win over Rubin Kazan, ended with the Blues climbing above Tottenham and Arsenal into third place in the Premier League.
All eyes were on Di Canio as he emerged onto the touchline just before kick-off and made a beeline for the Chelsea bench and embraced John Terry, one of the few supportive voices in a torrid week.
Di Canio almost enjoyed the perfect start when Stephane Sessegnon escaped some sloppy marking from Ivanovic and fired into the side-netting from a tight angle in the opening moments.
It was clear Sunderland’s players were keen to impress Di Canio, but Craig Gardner was fortunate to escape with only a booking after a lunging foul on Senegal striker Demba Ba.
Di Canio has never been the shy, retiring type and he paced the touchline with trademark intensity, responding with furious, arm-waving reaction when Sessegnon chose the wrong option.
And, with Chelsea alarmingly short of energy and invention, Di Canio’s team were rewarded in the 45th minute.
When Adam Johnson curled an inswinging corner to the near post, John O’Shea flicked goalwards and Spanish right-back Azpilicueta responded with a rushed clearance that flashed into the roof of his own net.
Rafael Benitez responded by sending on Fernando Torres for Ba at half-time and the Spanish striker made an immediate impact as Chelsea drew level in the 47th minute.
With his first touch, Torres surged away down the left flank before cutting inside and picking out Oscar with a fine pass. The Brazilian’s woeful first touch allowed Simon Mignolet to save, but the rebound cannoned off the goalkeeper’s leg onto Kilgallon, who could only watch in despair as the ball hit his leg and trickled into the unguarded net.
Di Canio hardly had time to digest that misfortune when Sunderland fell behind to another moment of rank bad luck eight minutes later.
David Luiz’s shot from the edge of the area was struck with power, but appeared to lack the accuracy to beat Mignolet, until Serbian defender Ivanovic stuck a leg out and inadvertantly diverted past the wrong-footed keeper.
The fates were conspiring against Di Canio and, despite their game efforts, Sunderland lacked the cutting edge to salvage the situation.