Di Canio 'fascism' debate overshadows Chelsea's crucial win

Story highlights

  • Sunday's 2-1 win over Sunderland puts Chelsea third in English Premier League
  • Sunderland manager, asked about being a fascist, says "your nature never changes"
  • Paolo Di Canio also says, "I don't think you are the same person than 20 years ago"
  • Tottenham's bid for Champions League place falters with 2-2 draw against Everton

For once it wasn't Rafael Benitez facing the hard questions. The Chelsea manager has faced a barrage of criticism from fans and media this season, but this week he has led the English club to vital victories in the Premier League, FA Cup and Europa League.

By contrast, much of the focus ahead of Sunday's home match against Sunderland was on the struggling team's controversial appointment of manager Paolo Di Canio. Is he a fascist or not? Will he talk about it?

Was his hiring a massive misjudgment of public opinion by American owner Ellis Short in this political climate of ultra correctness, especially given Sunderland's strong commercial ties to Africa?

It was enough to prompt the resignation of the club's vice-chairman, former British foreign secretary David Miliband, but fan associations have largely been supportive of the Italian's arrival.

After Sunday's 2-1 defeat, which left Sunderland outside the relegation zone only on goal difference, Di Canio was questioned about his political beliefs -- but the former member of Italian club Lazio's right-wing hardcore supporters' group refused to dwell on specifics.

Read: Di Canio - Reviled and revered

"As a person you don't change, but you become an adult, you become a manager," he told reporters, who had been asked by Sunderland's press officer not to ask non-football questions, having released a statement earlier in the week insisting he does not support fascist ideology.

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"You can also handle your nature because you know now you're not a footballer, now you have responsibility for many others.

"Obviously your nature never changes, but you can lead, you can guide because you know that you have to be careful sometimes when you do something.

"I don't think you are the same person than 20 years ago, 10 years ago. We all change. We maintain the principles of when we were growing up, but we change a bit as a man, now as a manager."

Read: Arsenal's 'fighting spirit' gives Wenger hope

Di Canio, renowned for his colourful gestures as a player in the EPL with West Ham and as a manager with lower league Swindon, had his full repertoire on show at Stamford Bridge.

His team took the lead through an own-goal by Cesar Azpilicueta, then conceded their own by Matthew Kilgallon and then went down to a fortunate deflection by Branislav Ivanovic off a shot by Chelsea teammate David Luiz.

"I am more than happy for the first half. Chelsea obviously dominate when they keep the ball, against any other side at Stamford Bridge, but we were very organized," Di Canio said.

"The second half was difficult. In the last few days I studied the players and I know exactly what they can give in energy. The two goals came from little mistakes, and we will work to give them more energy in the next few weeks. We have a short time but we are capable."

Benitez has a short time left in his interim Chelsea tenure, but he has many more games scheduled than Sunderland's six.

Next Thursday's trip to Russia to face Rubin Kazan in the second-tier Europa League is the start of a run of four games in 10 days for last season's European champions, including an FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City next Sunday and then Premier League trips to Fulham and Liverpool.

Read: Bale injury hits Spurs' Euro hopes

The London side then have potentially the Europa League semifinals plus four final EPL games in which to secure a place in next season's Champions League.

Benitez expects that race to go to the final day of the campaign, despite Chelsea nudging ahead of Tottenham into third place on goal difference.

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"Tottenham and Arsenal are pushing, and Everton, so we have to carry on until the end," the Spaniard said.

"Hopefully we can do well next week in the cup competitions and after against Fulham and Liverpool. With too many games in a short period of time, it's important to keep the team winning."

Tottenham's tendency for late-season nerves continued on Sunday, with former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas' team needing a late equalizer against sixth-placed Everton.

Emmanuel Adebayor put the home side ahead but Everton replied through veteran former England international Phil Jagielka and Greek striker Kevin Mirallas.

Togo striker Adebayor then hit the post late on, but Gylfi Sigurdsson -- who scored the leveler in Thursday's Europa League quarterfinal first leg against Basel -- followed up to score from the rebound.

It left Spurs level on points with Chelsea and two ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal, having played one more match than both London rivals as they fight for top-four spots.

Seventh-placed Liverpool's hopes of European football next season appear over after a 0-0 draw with West Ham that left Brendan Rodgers' team seven points behind Arsenal, having played one more match.

At the other end of the table, bottom team Queens Park Rangers' bid to avoid relegation suffered a big blow after conceding an injury-time equalizer against fellow strugglers Wigan.

Big-spending QPR had striker Bobby Zamora sent off in the first half for a needless head-high lunge, but took a late lead through France forward Loic Remy's fourth goal in five games.

However, Stephane Mbia -- who had set Remy free on goal -- conceded a free-kick and Shaun Maloney curled the set-piece through the QPR wall to put third-bottom Wigan level on points with Sunderland.

Newcastle moved five points clear of the relegation battle with a 1-0 win at home to 10th-placed Fulham, as striker Papisse Cisse scored the only goal in time added on.

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