A week into the job and Paolo Di Canio has experienced first-hand just how cruel life can feel when you are overseeing a side apparently locked into a nosedive. Sunderland made Chelsea appear ordinary for long periods here and led the European champions for a while, even if any sense of ascendancy really extended only through the duration of the interval. By the end they had succumbed and, even with Wigan held elsewhere in west London, remain ensconced in the mire. The new manager had paced the touchline, lurching from animated encouragement to livid disapproval, but his enthusiasm will clearly be needed in the difficult weeks to come.

This was a mess of a game, the type that might normally have suited the visitors given the presumed gulf between the teams, though the lack of rhythm hampered as much as it hindered the side embroiled in the relegation scrap. Chelsea looked a squad whose onerous schedule is finally catching up on them, the hosts rather wheezing through a disjointed contest with their efforts undermined by fatigue, both mental and physical. Fernando Torres injected enough class and conviction to turn the tide upon his introduction at the break, and the decisive deflection count eventually turned in the home side's favour, but theirs was still a sense of relief at having edged through another awkward occasion.

Confronting a team under new stewardship is invariably tricky, so Rafael Benítez might have anticipated the slog into which the afternoon degenerated. Certainly the flair players upon whom the interim manager has relied recently, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, found it far harder to wound resolute opponents, their impact largely suffocated by the muscular industry of Alfred N'Diaye and Craig Gardner's tigerish presence.

The latter might still count himself fortunate to have avoided harsher punishment for one wild tackle on Demba Ba, and for later connecting with David Luiz, though his 10th booking of the season will still rule him out of the derby against Newcastle and the confrontation with Everton. Ba could yet be out for longer having limped away with a damaged ankle. Chelsea will assess him on Monday.

There were other grounds for Sunderland encouragement, from Connor Wickham's selfless display as a lone forward capable of unsettling the likes of Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz, to the spark provided by Stéphane Sessègnon. They had been spritely on the break when the hosts surrendered possession deep inside their own territory, hassled off their rhythm as they were, and industrious throughout. The work rate was feverish, the lead upon which they clung at the break well merited.

Wickham's shot had earned the corner from which they plundered. Adam Johnson's delivery was arced just beyond Petr Cech and was sliced into his own net by a panicked César Azpilicueta. The whistle sounded almost instantly for the teams to retire and, while the concourse bars filled up, the travelling support pinched themselves at the prospect of enjoying breathing space in the scrap near the foot.

Thereafter, reality quickly choked them again. Chelsea had lacked panache but, with Ba pained and withdrawn, they could at least turn to a forward revitalised in recent days. Torres had slipped back on to the bench here despite his fine showing against Rubin Kazan on Thursday, the Spaniard having revelled in the Europa League of late even if the rotation selection policy necessitated by a draining schedule had checked his momentum.

Unleashed for the second half, he was soon searing beyond Danny Rose in the opening exchange of the period to square for a marauding Oscar at his side. Sunderland were dishevelled, their rearguard pulled to pieces by the pace on the counter, with Simon Mignolet charging from his line to block. The loose ball cannoned from the goalkeeper's body and on to Matt Kilgallon to spin agonisingly into the net.

Rose had actually sprinted on to the line by then but lost his balance as the ball dribbled beyond him and into the corner. That rather summed up the visitors' luck. They were still attempting to recover some poise when, seven minutes later, Mata's corner was half-cleared by Wickham to David Luiz on the edge of the box. The Brazilian had time to compose himself before dragging a shot into the clutter in the penalty area, with Ivanovic reacting cutely to divert the attempt goalwards with the inside of his right boot. Mignolet, again wrong-footed, could not prevent it scuttling into the corner.

Sunderland's endeavour remained for the rest of the contest, but the opportunities never presented themselves for a team labouring outside the relegation zone now only on goal difference. Even Chelsea's sloppiness in possession provided little more than a half-chance for Johnson, who wriggled clear of Mikel John Obi to curl wide with Cech unperturbed. Di Canio could point to a lack of fitness, but this is a squad who must feel as if the world has turned against them. The Italian will need to be at his charming best to convince them all this can change, particularly with Wigan boasting the belief at the bottom.

Benítez, his own team now restored to third place with a third win in succession since that shoddy showing at Southampton the previous weekend, will hardly have time to catch his breath before his side depart for Moscow and Thursday's return leg against Rubin Kazan, but it said much that the level of discord at this club feels quelled. Their fixture list is providing a positive distraction and, while the wins are maintained, momentum is with them. Sunderland, in contrast, must generate some of their own if they, and Di Canio, are to escape.

Man of the match David Luiz (Chelsea)