MATCH REPORT: SUNDERLAND 1 CHELSEA 3
The Blues secured a much-needed three points, our first league win since October, with a 3-1 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, after two first-half Fernando Torres goals had put us firmly in the ascendancy.
Torres had given us the lead in the 10th minute when he expertly guided his volley beyond Simon Mignolet from an Eden Hazard cross, and the Spanish striker made it four goals in two games with virtually the last kick of the half, converting a penalty which had been won by Ramires.
The Blues appeared to be cruising to a comfortable win three minutes into the second half when Juan Mata made it 3-0 with his 10th goal of the season, but Sunderland, to their credit, refused to cave in, and Adam Johnson dragged them back into the game with a wonderful strike in the 66th minute.
Domestic form is now put on hold for the next 10 days as we jet off to Japan to take part in the FIFA World Club Cup, but Benitez, having seen his side score nine goals in two games, will feel a corner has been turned ahead of our next league game, against Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge two days before Christmas.
Benitez, having overseen his first win in midweek, named an unchanged side for the Blues. With John Terry still unavailable, Gary Cahill partnered David Luiz in the centre of defence, while Oriol Romeu retained his place in midfield with John Mikel Obi serving the first of a three-match ban. Frank Lampard was named as one of the substitutes having not featured since October.
For Sunderland, Steven Fletcher again missed out through injury, although John O'Shea returned from his absence to skipper the side.
With both teams equally desperate for a win, starting the game in a positive manner was imperative, and it was the Blues who should have been in front inside the opening minute.
Mata picked the ball up just inside the Sunderland half from Ramires, and the Spaniard sliced the home side open with a perfectly-executed pass into the path of Hazard; the Belgian cut across his marker, but the quick thinking of goalkeeper Mignolet allowed him to smother the ball away to safety.
It was the same combination once again moments later which threatened to yield an opening, as Mata and Hazard exchanged passes only for the former to fire across an empty goal.
Clearly buoyed by our 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland in midweek, it was a confident looking Chelsea side during the opening exchanges, particularly in the final third.
Torres was then unfortunate to see his close-range effort blocked after the ball had rebounded into his path off the back of Carlos Cuellar as early chances continued to go begging.
Ten minutes into the game, however, the goal our performance had merited up until that point arrived.
Romeu dispossessed Larsson inside our own half before feeding Moses, who in turn picked out the run of Hazard down the left-hand side. Hazard took one touch before delivering a quality cross into the box, and it was Torres who evaded his marker and steered a first-time volley into the top corner of the net.
Benitez would undoubtedly have been delighted in the way his side started the game, but nine minutes later there was cause for concern when Romeu, enjoying a decent run in the side of late, was forced out of the action following a heavy challenge by Sebastian Larsson.
It was Oscar who came on to replace the young midfielder, with the Brazilian slotting into a slightly deeper role than he has been accustomed to alongside Ramires.
As a spectacle, there was certainly no shortage of entertainment on offer, but it's fair to say referee Mark Halsey probably shouldn't expect too many Christmas cards off the home supporters in attendance following a couple of decisions they felt had gone against them.
Sunderland began to grow into the game as the half wore on, and after Cahill had headed clear a dangerous Adam Johnson cross, Petr Cech produced a smart save to deny Stephane Sessegnon.
The hosts were beginning to look for wide men Johnson and James McClean at every opportunity, but fortunately for the Blues, Cech was cutting a commanding figure, particularly when dealing with crosses.
After such a positive opening to the game, we had gone fairly quiet from an attacking point of view; Oscar volleyed wide from the edge of the box after a Mata free-kick had fallen kindly for him, while a mix-up between Mata and Hazard on the break allowed Martin O'Neill's side to clear the danger.
Craig Gardner, meanwhile, no stranger to a spectacular strike, tried his luck at the other end from long-range without seriously troubling Cech.
Halsey had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot, and it was Torres who took responsibility, striding forward and calmly sending Mignolet the wrong way, doubling his tally for the afternoon with his 11th goal of the campaign.
If the goal just before the break had come at a crucial time, three minutes into the second half we knocked the stuffing out of Sunderland with a third.
The ball was worked into Torres on the edge of the box who, with one swift movement, turned and crashed a powerful, curling left-footed strike against the underside of the bar, but as it rebounded back out, it was Mata who reacted quickest, pouncing on the loose ball and driving his effort beyond Mignolet into the bottom corner, his third strike in as many matches.
Mata was fortunate to escape caution shortly after when he appeared to kick out at Larsson following a touchline tussle, while Benitez, no doubt with one eye on the Club World Cup, replaced the impressive Moses with Ryan Bertrand just after the hour.
Five minutes later the home side were given hope when they reduced the deficit in stunning style. Johnson picked the ball up on the left-hand side of the penalty area, and as he shaped to cross, the winger bent a wonderful strike into the far corner before Branislav Ivanovic had time to adjust.
With fifteen minutes left on the clock Cech produced an important save to turn Johnson's free-kick behind as the ball looked destined for the top corner, and what should have been a routine second half was turning into anything but.
Sensing the need for cool heads and experience, Benitez introduced Frank Lampard to the action with 12 minutes left to play. The midfielder had been out of action since limping off during our Champions League match in Shakhtar Donetsk, and was unsurprisingly afforded a wonderful ovation from the travelling Chelsea faithful perched high up behind Cech's goal.
Lampard forced a decent save out of Mignolet with his first attempt on goal as we sought to put the game to bed, while Louis Saha replaced Larsson for the hosts.
Craig Gardner crashed a free-kick against the bar in the last minute of normal time with Cech rooted to the spot, but the damage done earlier in the game saw us record a hugely significant victory.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech (c); Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Romeu (Oscar 19); Moses (Bertrand 61), Mata, Hazard (Lampard 79); Torres.
Unused substitutes Turnbull, Fereira, Azpilicueta, Marin.
Scorers Torres 11, 45+2 (pen), Mata 48.
Booked Ivanovic 71, Ramires 84, Mata 86.
Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Bardsley (Colback 66), O'Shea (c), Cuellar, Rose; Larsson (Saha 81), Gardner; Johnson, Sessegnon, McClean; Wickham.
Unused substitutes Westwood, Bramble, Vaughan, Kilgallon, Campbell.
Scorer Johnson 65
Booked Gardner 42.
Referee Mark Halsey