SUNDERLAND ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01: Salomon Kalou of Chelsea scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Chelsea at the Stadium of Light on February 1 2011 in Sunderland England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Three games in, seven points won. That's pretty good going, really - that pace would win you the title most seasons - but Chelsea are still two points behind both Manchester teams in the early going and now things are going to get a lot more difficult. A visit to Sunderland and the Stadium of Light will be our weekend entertainment, but you'd probably be forgiven for looking past that fixture to the team's next two matches, our Champions League opener versus Bayer Leverkusen and then a battle against the champions at Old Trafford and a match which could well define the early season for Chelsea.
To ignore Sunderland entirely is to do them a disfavour, of course. The Black Cats are a team which most would put on the fringes of Europa League contention this year, and they're also the side that handed the Blues one of their most embarrassing results in recent history. That 3-0 loss at Stamford Bridge last year is going to haunt our collective memories for a while, and a 4-2 mauling in the reverse fixture hasn't even begun to address that particular balance. Sunderland showed what they could do when Chelsea aren't ready for them last year, and I don't think anyone has any real wish to see a repeat performance.
There's no reason to suggest that Andre Villas-Boas will be particularly complacent here, however. Being unprepared isn't in the Portuguese's character, and he'll be ready for whatever surprises Steve Bruce and company have looming. Sunderland brought in a few new faces over the summer, having lost some as well. Their biggest switch has come in midfield, where Craig Gardner and 14M have replaced the now-Anfield-dwelling Jordan Henderson. Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner has also joined forces with Sunderland on a loan deal, and despite his poor finishing he's always a threat to find himself at the right place and the right time for shots on goal - it's a bit of a shame he misses most of them.
is would have been a threat as well, albeit in a more traditional manner. With the issues John Terry and Chelsea's other centre backs have been having so far this season, it wouldn't surprise anyone for Gyan to have a field day with Chelsea's back line (ed: except for the fact that he's injured and won't play). However, Sunderland haven't really been a problem for anyone's defence thus far, scoring just one goal in their three matches (Sebastian Larsson's lovely volley against Liverpool at Anfield in the season opener). With two draws and one loss, the club is hardly on scintillating form, but don't let that distract you from the fact that at their core, this is a pretty decent outfit and one that could cause Chelsea issues if things break their way.
What better time for Villas-Boas to play some attacking trump cards, then? With Didier Drogba out, Fernando Torres won't have to be looking over his shoulder for his number to pop up on the sidelines, but he'll presumably have to look left, where Juan Mata seems set to make his first Premier League start as a left forward. The Spaniards linked up extremely well in their brief time together two weeks ago, so more of the same would be just peachy.
On the other flank, young Daniel Sturridge lurks, back from a three-game suspension. Sturridge is a little bit of an enigma at this point, but his loan spell at Bolton Wanderers was a huge success and he impressed in the pre-season, so he deserves a spot here. Hopefully his habit of cutting inside and unleashing merry havoc with that left foot of his can combine with Jose Bosingwa marauding down the right flank to cause chaos in Sunderland's defence.
The other big personnel change will be the return of one Petr Cech, who had missed the previous two games with an MCL injury. Henrique Hilario stood in admirably for the Czech goalkeeper (apart from one liiiittle mishap), but the back line will presumably be a little more comfortable knowing that their number one is out there rather than a backup.
And speaking of the back line, it's still not entirely clear who'll be partnering John Terry. Branislav Ivanovic and Alex have both made mistakes leading to opposition goals so far this year, and with David Luiz back in full training there is another (better) option at centre back to push them all further along. Ivanovic is slightly better suited to dealing with Villas-Boas' favoured high line, however, so my guess is that he'll get the start with David Luiz making the bench. The Brazilian will grab the starting spot shortly, no doubt.
Although Raul Meireles was Chelsea's deadline splash, it doesn't seem particularly likely that he'll be claiming a starting spot here (although expect to see him on the bench). With Mata on the left flank and the Bosingwa-Sturridge axis on the right, there's not too much need for a passing upgrade over Frank Lampard and Ramires - although I'm sure Fernando Torres wouldn't mind seeing Meireles make an appearance as a substitute.
Oh, and CHelsea will probably go 4-3-3 after starting the last match 4-1-3-2. I probably should have mentioned that earlier. Here's the projected lineup (left to right, back to front):
If that side can crack Simon Mignolet's goal once, it can do it twice. Two goals should be enough to get past Sunderland, and it would be a big surprise to see the home side treble (or more!) their goal tally against a pretty strong Chelsea side. I'm going 2-1 here. Join us here on We Ain't Got No History on Saturday at 3:00 PM BST (10:00 AM EST) for the game thread.