EPL: Chelsea face Sunderland, Utd play Norwich

Chelsea start life after Jose Mourinho with a vital showdown against Sunderland on Saturday as the crisis-torn Premier League champions look to climb away from the relegation zone.

Chelsea are just one point away from the bottom three after having picked up just 15 points from 16 matches.   -  AP

Chelsea start life after Jose Mourinho with a vital showdown against Sunderland on Saturday as the crisis-torn Premier League champions look to climb away from the relegation zone.

Prior to his sacking on Thursday, Mourinho insisted that while the club was struggling near the bottom three, they were not in a relegation fight. But if results don't improve quickly under Mourinho's replacement it will be harder to reject the idea that the west London team are in deep trouble.

Monday's 2-1 defeat at Leicester ended Mourinho's second spell in charge and left Chelsea in 16th spot with 15 points — two places and one point above the bottom three. And if Sunderland, currently lying second bottom, become the fifth Premier League side to leave Stamford Bridge this season with three points, they will move level with Chelsea, adding to the log-jam at the foot of the table.

Whoever is in charge of Chelsea for the visit of Sam Allardyce's side will have to coax a vastly improved performance from a group of players who have proved alarmingly inconsistent this season.

Mourinho maintained his side had turned the corner in recent weeks, particularly in the Champions League where they progressed to the knock-out stage as the winners of their group.

But the home defeat to Bournemouth left Mourinho stunned and his angry reaction to the Leicester loss highlighted the rift between the Portuguese and his players.

Serbia midfielder Nemanja Matic summed up the confusion surrounding Chelsea's form when he told said: "I cannot explain why consistency has been so difficult to achieve.

"I don't know what happened to us (against Leicester). In the game against Porto, a very good team, we played very well, we scored two goals and created chances, but we were like another team on the pitch against Leicester."

Mourinho's absence also impacts on Sunderland's preparations as they might face a rejuvenated side and Black Cats manager Sam Allardyce said: "I'm not sure whether it'll make it harder or not to be honest.

"Everybody expects a reaction when a manager gets sacked, and sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. I always think it's quite a sad state of affairs when a team of players actually plays better when their manager has been sacked. I find that quite sad.

"I find it irresponsible from a players' point of view, especially when they come out after the game and say, 'We've done that for the manager'."

Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher insists a tough run of fixtures over the festive period holds no fears for the relegation-threatened club.

The Wearsiders follow their trip to the Bridge with a Boxing Day visit to Manchester City, before Liverpool visit the Stadium of Light on December 30. It's a testing trio of games Fletcher says Sunderland will relish.

"You've got to play the big teams at some point in the season, so why not play them one after another?" he said. "Chelsea are still a world class team with the same players who won the title last season."

Sunderland defender Younes Kaboul is available after recovering from a bout of illness, and former England forward Jermain Defoe, the club's seven-goal top scorer, could return.

Van Gaal’s Norwich challenge

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal expressed his surprise at Chelsea’s decision to sack Jose Mourinho and admitted it could be “the end of the world” for him if Manchester United’s performances does not improve.

United have not won in their past five games in all competitions and were knocked out of the Champions League last week. They have scored only four times during this time and the Dutch manager’s strategy has been under scrutiny.

Captain Wayne Rooney could make a return for Norwich City’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday, having missed three matches due to a foot problem. If he features it will be his 500th appearance for the Red Devils. Defender Chris Smalling and midfielder Ander Herrera are also expected to be fit for the tie.

Other fixtures: Southampton v Tottenham; West Brom v Bournemouth; Everton v Leicester City; Stoke City v Crystal Palace; Newcastle v Aston Villa