Fernando Torres put in another star turn as he inspired Chelsea to a 3-1 win at Sunderland, their first Premier League triumph in eight matches, putting Martin O’Neill’s side in the relegation zone.
The goal-shy Spain striker scored twice in the Champions League in midweek and opened the scoring in the North East with a fine volley, adding a second from the spot just before the break.
He then turned provider as Juan Mata poached a third early in the second half, with Adam Johnson pulling one back for Sunderland with a superb driven effort across Petr Cech.
Sunderland improved in the latter stages, going close three times, but Chelsea were relatively comfortable as they closed out victory.
The result ends Chelsea’s winless streak in the league that started with their infamous 3-2 home defeat to Manchester United on October 28. They are now three points behind second-placed Manchester City, who play leaders United on Sunday.
Sunderland slide into the bottom three after Southampton beat Reading, with the Black Cats on one win in 10 matches.
Torres had not scored in the Premier League for two months so, after his match-winning turn against FC Nordsjaelland, he needed to show it was no one-off.
His team helped, starting the match with the free-flowing football they showed in their promising early-season form.
The visitors could have had a penalty in the second minute as Sebastian Larsson pulled the shirt of Eden Hazard after he was sent through by Juan Mata, who himself should have scored when put one-on-one by the Belgian, compatriot Simon Mignolet saving the day on both occasions.
Mignolet made another smart save to keep out Torres, who had done well to control the ball after it ricocheted into his path off the head of Carlos Cuellar.
They got their breakthrough soon afterwards as, following a driving run from Victor Moses, Hazard picked out a waist-high cross that a flying Torres expertly volleyed past Mignolet.
Exploiting a touch of chaos after Chelsea were forced into a tactical reshuffle following an injury to Oriol Romeu, the Black Cats had the visitors on the rack for 25 minutes or so.
Gary Cahill scrambled clear following goalmouth pinball, while Cech added a flying save to a series of punches under pressure as Stephane Sessegnon blasted a long-range effort towards the top right.
Chelsea were looking for the counter attack, but that suits them well enough as Ramires raced down the left in first-half stoppage time. The Brazilian’s clever cut-back drew a rash challenge from Larsson, who chopped him down to concede a penalty.
Torres stepped up and, his confidence boosted by recent triumphs, coolly finished down the right as Mignolet guessed incorrectly.
The second half saw Chelsea end the match as a contest when Torres latched on to a poor clearance to fire a first-time left-foot drive off the crossbar – his disappointment at missing a hat-trick was tempered by Mata, who rolled home the rebound for 3-0.
Sunderland did at least try to fight back, as Johnson pulled one back with a fantastic goal. Taken from a crossing position on the left, it was seemingly intended to beat the surprised Cech as the England winger looked up towards the far corner, which he found with a vicious strike.
Chelsea were suddenly on the back foot as Johnson forced a fine save from Cech with a long-range free-kick, while a fantastic turn and pass from Connor Wickham freed James McClean, his driven low cross agonisingly close to conversion by sliding team-mates.
Wickham had grown into the game and forced a late corner off Cech with a low shot, while Johnson hit the bar with a free-kick deep into injury time.
But for all their efforts Sunderland could not add any more goals, leaving O’Neill under yet more pressure as his side fall into the relegation places.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Fernando Torres (Chelsea): Torres scored his first Premier League goal in 12 and a half hours, and promptly added a second and an assist as he shows a rebirth under Rafael Benitez. Could this be the start of a genuine return to his peak?
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 7, Bardsley 5, Rose 6, O'Shea 6, Cuellar 6, Larsson 5, Gardner 6, Johnson 7, McClean 6, Sessegnon 6, Wickham 7; Subs: Colback 6, Saha N/A
CHELSEA: Cech 7, Ivanovic 6, Cahill 6, Luiz 7, Cole 6, Romeu N/A, Ramires 7, Hazard 6, Mata 7, Moses 7, Torres 9; Subs: Bertrand 6, Lampard N/A, Oscar 6
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