LONDON // Sunderland were sharper, more disciplined and generally less resigned to their own fate than they had been in the latter days under deposed coach Martin O'Neill, but the Paolo Di Canio era nonetheless began the same way the old reign ended.
The defeat extended to nine their run of games without a win and leaves them out of the relegation zone only on goal difference - and Wigan Athletic, the team immediately below them, have a game in hand.
Di Canio was cheered by the Sunderland fans before kick off, and he seemed unbothered by his former West Ham United teammate David James describing him as "unlikable" in his column in a British newspaper.
"I'm more than happy with the first half," Di Canio said after his side's 2-1 defeat.
"The lads went through the strategy very, very well. We were well-organised. They ran very, very hard.
"The second half was difficult. I know exactly what they can give to me, the energy. The most important thing is their attention - the two goals came from mistakes.
"They're not the fittest team in the world, but we are going to work and give them more energy. We've spent more time on shape, tactical and technical work, and this is what they needed. "
Of James's column in The Observer newpaper, the Italian responded: "You learn to handle your character, your moods will never change, but you can gather your nature."
The fascism talk will not go away, though, and Di Canio was led from the press conference by Sunderland's media officer when asked whether the club should join a citywide anti-fascist campaign.
From a football point of view, there were positives, particularly in a first half in which Sunderland had the better of what few chances there were.
The return of Sebastian Larsson to the right flank saw Craig Gardner restored to his more natural central midfield role - a luxury denied O'Neill for much of this season as Gardner covered at right-back for the injured Phil Bardsley - gave Sunderland greater balance. Connor Wickham, selected at centre-forward in the absence of the injured Steven Fletcher, battled hard. There were flickers from Stephan Sessegnon.
Sunderland took the lead in the final minute of the half, with Cesar Azpilicueta slicing into his own net after Adam Johnson's corner had been flicked on by John O'Shea, but optimism had gone within 10 minutes of the restart.
Fernando Torres, on for Demba Ba and looking as lively as he had in scoring twice against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League on Thursday, raced down the left and squared the ball for Oscar.
Simon Mignolet challenged him, the ball squirted off the Sunderland goalkeeper's shins, hit Matthew Kilgallon and spun in as Danny Rose slipped on the goal line while trying to clear the ball.
Then Kilgallon's headed clearance fell for David Luiz, who shot was heading wide when it flicked the heel of Branislav Ivanovic, wrong-footing Mignolet and creeping into the bottom corner.
The goals were unfortunate, but having pressured Chelsea and driven them back in the first half, Sunderland were static in the second, sitting off and allowing Chelsea to dictate play. When Sunderland did build momentum in the final minutes, they lacked the quality to take advantage.
Chelsea may be third in the table but there was a sense that, playing their fourth game in eight days, they were vulnerable. Sunderland failed to take their opportunity and the defeat drags them deeper into the relegation quagmire and allowed Wigan, in 18th place, to move level on 31 points with them.
"After four games in eight days, I'm really pleased," the Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benitez said. "The most important thing is getting the result."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE