Wigan Athletic 1 Chelsea 2: Alex's efficiency keeps Chelsea up to strength

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The Independent Online

The Cup holders showed at Wigan that they can play the game however is required – with most of their stars or without them, short and slick or long and direct.

With the equivalent of a full team either injured or in Ghana, it would be easy for Chelsea to allow themselves to lose focus on at least one of the four trophies they are still pursuing. Instead, they have taken their winning run to eight games, qualified for the Carling Cup final and made well-deserved progress in the FA Cup.

It helps when you can afford to carry a wealth of well-paid back-ups, but Chelsea have found the right replacements to cover for their missing main men.

Take the economically named Alex, for instance. He could be said to have the toughest job of all, standing in for John Terry. So composed was the Brazilian defender at the JJB Stadium on Saturday evening, however, that, as the home manager, Steve Bruce, observed, the Chelsea and England captain was not missed at all.

Alex's efficiency was one of the reasons why Wigan did not muster a proper shot until they were two goals in arrears. Another was the way the alert Wayne Bridge nipped the ball off Marcus Bent's toe when Emile Heskey's neat little through-ball had set up what could have been the game's first goal.

Bridge was preferred at left-back to the fit Ashley Cole and it is a sign of how far Cole's stock has fallen since his acrimonious move from Arsenal that he cannot even claim a place among the substitutes in such a depleted squad. "We have two of the best left-backs in England," was the Chelsea manager Avram Grant's take. "Sometimes one won't play, because I don't like too many defenders on the bench."

Up front, the position is less complicated and the arrival of Nicolas Anelka is as perfectly timed as one of his runs from that grey area he occupies between onside and offside. "Now we need him more than ever," Grant said. "We are very short in the squad and he is the only striker we have."

The Anelka who scored his first goal for the club and laid one on for Shaun Wright-Phillips might be the only striker you need. Wigan indulged in a bout of wishful thinking in their appeals for offside when he scored; they had better grounds for complaint over a crafty little push that got him away from Kevin Kilbane for his side's second.

There was a certain irony in the way that both goals came from long balls over the top, after Chelsea had abandoned their early ambitions to play one-touch football on a dreadful pitch.

It is traditional for the supporters of Wigan Apopleptic to blame the ground-sharing rugby league club for this state of affairs, whether they have played there recently or not. In fact, what the playing surface might need now is a few rugby matches to flatten it down and knock some of the devilment out of it.

Although Wigan did not by any means take this tie lightly, fielding, like their visitors, the strongest side they could, their priorities now lie with Premier League survival.

One new player, Wilson Palacios, has already made his mark and another, the Swedish left-back Erik Edman, would have made his debut against Chelsea, but for a calf injury. Marlon King is also waiting in the wings and there could be more. All that could be to no avail if they continue to make the sort of individual defensive mistakes that are undermining them.

Goals: Anelka (53) 0-1; Wright-Phillips (82) 0-2; Sibierski (87) 1-2.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Melchiot, Scharner, Bramble, Kilbane; Valencia, Palacios (Sibierski, 70), Brown, Taylor (Koumas, 57); Bent, Heskey (Aghahowa, 84). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Boyce.

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Belletti, Alex, Carvalho, Bridge; Makelele, Sidwell; Cole, Wright-Phillips, Malouda (Ferreira, 79); Anelka (Pizarro, 90). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Ben-Haim, Sinclair.

Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Wigan Bramble, Scharner, Palacios, Aghahowa; Chelsea Carvalho, Alex.

Man of the match: Alex.

Attendance: 14,166.

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