LONDON // Could the ugly sacking of Ray Wilkins have done this much damage to Chelsea? No, but an accumulation of other cuts is starting to bleed the champions' dominance away. Far more important than the Roman Abramovich-enforced removal of Carlo Ancelotti's assistant is the owner's culling of his Premier League-winning squad.
This summer Abramovich thought he could do without the expense of re-employing five senior internationals. What he did not calculate was how his ageing team would cope when injuries and suspensions further reduced resources.
Here was the result: the worst of the Abramovich era. Chelsea started against Sunderland minus Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Alex and John Terry. Sunderland observed the weaknesses in the heart of their defence and attacked where others have sat back. Three goals did not flatter; it was just reward for a team that treated Chelsea as they found them - a diminished force. Ancelotti considered it "the worst performance" of his Chelsea career. "Sometimes we've had some players out in the past, some important players, and the team's played well," he said. "Today was different. We were not able to play our football. [But] I think the squad is strong enough. "
Sunderland's first result of any kind against Chelsea in almost a decade lifted Steve Bruce's young side up to sixth in the table.
"Chelsea are so used to playing against one striker, and people are so frightened coming here and no one wants to get humiliated, so we said, 'sod it let's have a go'," said Bruce, who played Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck together up front.
It seemed an appropriate end to a poorly handled week. That Wilkins has drawn the ire of the club's hierarchy becomes clear with the knowledge that his £400,000-a-year (Dh2.36 million) contract did not expire until June; the redundancy payment as substantial as the negative publicity it invoked.
When Wilkins was appointed by Peter Kenyon in 2008, his coaching skills were as important as placing an indentured set of eyes among then-manager Luiz Felipe Scolari's Brazilian staff. Wilkins's candidacy was pushed by John Terry, the club captain.
Kenyon has long since been dismissed as chief executive, while Terry's influence at Stamford Bridge has dwindled to a point where he could do nothing to stop last week's sacking. Paul Clement, who two years ago was a coach in the club's underperforming academy, will now take on greater responsibility.
Michael Emenalo, the opposition scout, is to have his increasing input into team matters formalised. It continues the remarkable rise of an Avram Grant appointment who has never coached a professional football team and whose previous job involved organising a girls' side at Tucson Soccer Academy.
Chelsea's other unexpected absence was Terry, sidelined with a back problem. With Alex under treatment for a knee injury, Ancelotti selected Paulo Ferreira as a makeshift centre-back.
With the change in personnel was to go a run of nine home league matches without conceding. Sunderland took the lead just before half time.
Ferreira could not properly clear Welbeck's pass to Gyan, precipitating an excellent double save. When the ball broke to Nedum Onuoha, the right-back surprised most by swerving between John Obi Mikel, Jose Bosingwa and Branislav Ivanovic before an elegant sidefoot past Petr Cech.
"He'll never score a better one than that," said Bruce of the Manchester City loanee. "I've said to him: 'How can I buy him now?'"
After half time, Sunderland soon extended that lead. Welbeck, Jordan Henderson and Gyan passed and moved the ball around Chelsea's soft centre until the Ghanaian was in position to bend it in.
It was not the end of Ancelotti's pain. Craig Gordon, the goalkeeper, was the equal of everything a re-jigged team could throw at him - which was not a huge amount.
With three minutes to play Welbeck grabbed hold of an errant Ashley Cole back pass and made the lead three. Stamford Bridge's stands already looked like its squad - worryingly short on numbers.