Chelsea came from behind to beat Sunderland 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and deny Paolo Di Canio a sensational start in his first game as an English Premier League manager.
Chelsea’s victory, in a game that witnessed two own goals, saw them climb above both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur into third place, while Sunderland remain just a point above the relegation zone.
Appointed as the successor to Martin O’Neill amid a whirlwind of controversy over his alleged fascist sympathies, Di Canio had dominated the British sporting headlines in the build-up to the game.
The Italian, who this week denied he was a fascist, saw his side take the lead on the stroke of half-time when Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta inadvertently hooked John O’Shea’s header into his own goal.
Di Canio had drafted Matthew Kilgallon into his starting line-up but the centre-back accidentally gifted Chelsea an equaliser in the 47th minute when he diverted Oscar’s pass past visiting goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Branislav Ivanovic completed the Chelsea comeback 10 minutes into the second half but his strike was similarly fortuitous, David Luiz’s strike cannoning off him and trundling into the bottom-right corner.
“I am not worried (about relegation) … When I decided to move to Sunderland, I knew what players were here but we have to fight until the end of the season.“
– Paolo Di Canio
“I am not worried (about relegation),” said Di Canio.
“When I decided to move to Sunderland, I knew what players were here but we have to fight until the end of the season.
“I won’t say this was a bonus game but it was a test for us to see what we can do. I am not happy we lost 2-1, but there were positive things I can take from this.”
Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez said: “We needed to improve, obviously. The negative thing is we concede a goal, the positive thing is we recover and come back.”
Earlier, Gylfi Sigurdsson snatched a late equaliser as Tottenham denied Champions League qualification rivals Everton victory in a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane.
Spurs went into the game aiming to tighten their grip on third place and they took the lead after just 34 seconds when a stretching Emmanuel Adebayor toed Jan Vertonghen’s cross past Tim Howard.
However, Phil Jagielka equalised with a 15th-minute header before Kevin Mirallas put the visitors in front eight minutes into the second half with a goal to rival his fine strike in last weekend’s 1-0 win at Stoke City.
Picking up the ball in the inside-right channel, the Belgian neatly weaved his way past three opposing players before planting a shot in the bottom-left corner.
David Moyes’ side were within sight of a fourth straight league win, only for Sigurdsson to tap home an equaliser in the 87th minute after Adebayor’s shot came back off the post.
Tottenham finish the weekend in the fourth and final Champions League qualifying place, but although they are two points above Arsenal and six points clear of Everton, both their pursuers have games in hand.
“It looks like it will go down to the wire at the end of the season for these Champions League spots,” said Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas.
“It’s part of the game – everything shifts very, very quickly in the Premier League, but we have been in this position before and you have to deal with the pressure.”
Meanwhile, Shaun Maloney scored a glorious injury-time free-kick to earn third-bottom Wigan Athletic a 1-1 draw at second-bottom Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.
Loic Remy’s magnificent 85th-minute strike looked to have breathed new life into QPR’s bid to avoid the drop, only for Maloney to bend a free-kick into the top-right corner with practically the last kick off the game.
QPR, who had Bobby Zamora sent off in the first half, now lie seven points from safety with six games to play, while Wigan trail Sunderland on goal difference alone and have a game in hand.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s bid for a European berth faltered as they were held to a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to West Ham United.
Brendan Rodgers’ side lost Stewart Downing to injury in the first half at Anfield and their best chance saw a Steven Gerrard effort blocked on the line by James Tomkins.
The result meant Liverpool remained in seventh place, but they are now seven points outside the European qualifying places having played a game more than both fifth-place Arsenal and sixth-place Everton.
Elsewhere, Papiss Cisse struck in injury time to earn Newcastle United a 1-0 win at home to Fulham that lifted Alan Pardew’s side five points clear of the bottom three.