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Beware Black Cats crossing your path. That would have been sage advice to the trio of Premier League title contenders in the last week of March as Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all prepared to face Sunderland at home in the run-in. Only the Reds survived the test, and even then it was a nervy ending in a tight 2-1 victory. City and Chelsea have only themselves to blame. Champions are meant to get better at this stage of the season, not drop points at home to the team rooted to the bottom of the league.
This wasn't the first time Chelsea have struggled in recent weeks. Defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace suggested Jose Mourinho may have a point about his team not being 'ready' to mount a convincing title challenge, but perhaps a persistent negative outlook has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Against Sunderland, the Blues certainly lacked conviction. This wasn't another example of Chelsea failing to find openings against an opponent defending deep - they created enough chances but lacked a finishing touch.
It was further evidence to support Mourinho's well-publicised concerns about his strikers. Fifteen of Chelsea's 31 efforts hit the target on Saturday, but Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba and Fernando Torres all wasted good opportunities to score. This has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign and one Mourinho has failed to adequately address, eventually resulting in the end of his 77-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge. However, instead of focusing on the issue in his post-match interview, the Portuguese preferred to sarcastically praise the officials for awarding Sunderland their decisive penalty.
"I just want to say four things," said a flustered Mourinho as he spoke to Geoff Shreeves on Sky. "Congratulations to my players, because they gave what they have and what they don't have. Congratulations to Sunderland because they won. Congratulations to Mike Dean, because he made a fantastic performance. And congratulations to Mike Riley (head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board) because what they did during the season was fantastic for the way the championship is going. So congratulations to all of them and I have nothing more to say."
In truth, it was a weak reaction to what looks like the end of Chelsea's title challenge. In most matches, there would have been few complaints about Dean's decision to penalise Cesar Azpilicueta for catching Jozy Altidore's ankle, but on this occasion Mourinho was looking to save face by fudging his analysis. If you can't beat Sunderland at home, it's difficult to argue that you deserve to be in the title race, and Chelsea's failure in this regard runs much deeper than the incident which led to Fabio Borini's winning goal.
After adopting the role of the 'little horse' for most of the campaign, this was Chelsea and Mourinho's big chance to win the race. City had blown it with their 2-2 draw on Wednesday night, reinforcing nagging doubts over Manuel Pellegrini's ability to win when it really matters. It was in Chelsea's hands. Beat Sunderland, beat Liverpool, win the last two against Norwich and Cardiff, and the title would be theirs. A victory that would provide vindication for Mourinho following a trophyless final season at Real Madrid.
But even after City passed the advantage back to the Blues and Liverpool, Chelsea were missing the necessary composure to see the job through. Perhaps their thoughts were on the trip to Anfield and a Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid, or perhaps Mourinho has failed to exude the calmness that Luis Suarez claims has been so important in Brendan Rodgers' remarkable campaign at Liverpool. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, and it seemed the Portuguese's comments about his strikers backfired on Saturday, as Ba and Torres both lacked the required composure to prove the difference after coming on. They were too eager to impress; to warrant recognition in one of four games that will decide the title. Instead, it descended into panic.
The result sees the momentum grow in Liverpool's favour. In terms of what the Reds now have to do, little has changed; they must still ensure they don't lose to Chelsea on April 27 to avoid allowing City the chance to snatch the championship on goal difference. And they must win the rest of their remaining games, of course. However, they will know they are the toughest team still standing - the one whose manager is saying all the right things, and whose players are running on incredible belief. These are factors that Mourinho should have mastered in his first season back at the Bridge, but he was too preoccupied with his 'little horse' - a metaphor that has been cut down to size by Liverpool's success.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.