The tortoise, it may be recalled, beat the hare but Chelsea's dogged, unspectacular pursuit of Manchester United now looks unlikely to produce a similar surprise. Last night they threw away two priceless points to Wigan's hard-working triers and are now five points adrift of the leaders with four matches to play.
Even though Manchester United have still to visit Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea have now completed a century of games unbeaten (if a League Cup penalty shoot-out defeat to Charlton in the distant past can be discounted) that is a chasm to bridge. Manchester United, thanks to their overwhelming advantage in goal difference, could still drop a couple of points elsewhere and win the title. They will have even more leeway if Chelsea do not win at Everton, in two days' time. Even Steve Bruce, the old Manchester United warhorse now managing Wigan, said: "That is a horrific match for them. It is unbelievable that they have to play two games in three days while chasing a title. It is ridiculous. It's not right."
"We must win on Thursday," admitted Avram Grant but Chelsea's chances of doing so recede even further with the prospect that neither Frank Lampard, nor Didier Drogba, will be present. Lampard, having originally been named in the team, left the ground shortly before kick-off to attend an unspecified family matter. Drogba will have a scan on his troublesome knee injury this morning.
It is true that Chelsea have high-calibre replacements, but they will be heavy-legged at Goodison Park. In an attempt to ensure maximum points from these two matches – moved at the behest of television – Grant made five other changes from the XI which ground their way past Fenerbahce last week to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League. One was the result of Petr Cech returning for his first match since March 1, but such luminaries as Ricardo Carvalho, Claude Makelele and Ashley Cole were rested while Joe Cole only made the bench.
The latter was summoned to the fray at half-time after a pedestrian opening period which concluded with the home support booing their players off. Cole transformed the game and set up Michael Essien for the 55th-minute goal which looked to be enough. But Chris Kirkland kept Wigan in the match and, deep into injury-time, Emile Heskey marked his 400th appearance by turning in a Jason Koumas cross. Rarely has an ex-Liverpool player been so acclaimed by Old Trafford regulars.
"The first half was not so good. In the second half we played well. We created enough chances to win the game," said Grant. "The fans need to respect the way we played in the second half. If we had taken ten per cent of our chances we could have won three or four nil."
That was a gross exaggeration, even if Chelsea dominated from the 45th to 80th minute with Kirkland making excellent saves from Cole, Essien and Anelka. The latter has only scored twice in 18 appearances since joining Chelsea in January a return which, for all his good work off the ball, is inadequate for a £15m striker. The one positive Grant could glean from the night was a useful lesson ahead of the two Champions League ties with Liverpool, for Wigan played the same 4-2-3-1 formation. While neither Heskey and Marcus Bent, who rotated the centre-forward role, are a patch on Fernando Torres, and Winston Palacios is no Steven Gerrard, defensively Wigan posed similar problems. Their deep central midfielders tracked Essien and Michael Ballack, Palacios pushed up on John Obi Mikel, and the wide midfielders did their best to occupy Chelsea's full-backs. Cole's introduction showed that one way to outwit such man-for-man defending is to commit opponents through dribbling.
The Israeli's decision to rotate was understandable, especially given Chelsea had won all six matches against Wigan since the latter reached the Premier League. However, twice they had needed a last-minute goal to take the points so victory could not be regarded as an absolute formality. That was underlined by the opening quarter when Cech, playing in a chin guard to protect the 50 stitches he needed after being accidentally raked in training by Tal Ben Haim a fortnight ago, was the only keeper exercised, making a sharp save low at his near post from a powerful snap-shot from Antonio Valencia.
Kirkland was not similarly stretched until the 26th minute, the England hopeful clawing away Anelka's looping header from a lobbed Florent Malouda cross. So impotent were Chelsea the closest they came to scoring in the half was from an own goal, Ryan Taylor clearing Paul Scharner's header off the line following a corner. Cole's arrival had an immediate impact and Chelsea went ahead after a concerted burst of pressure in which John Terry thumped a shot against the bar and Kirkland denied Salomon Kalou. Finally, Anelka laid Cole's cross back to Essien who drove inside the far post.
Steve Bruce reacted boldly, introducing Koumas and strikers Antoine Sibierski and Marlon King. Chelsea failed to heed the warning when Cech subsequently denied Sibierski and allowed Koumas time to curl an inviting ball across the Chelsea box which Heskey stabbed in. To jeers and boos Grant brought on Andrei Shevchenko but there were no further twists. At the final whistle they played Journey's "Don't Stop Believin", but this is one quest which is heading for a dead end.
Goals: Essien (55) 1-0; Heskey (90) 1-1.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Belletti, Alex, Terry, Bridge; Mikel (Shevchenko, 90); Essien, Ballack; Kalou, Anelka, Malouda (J Cole, h-t). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Pizarro, Wright-Phillips.
Wigan Athletic (4-2-3-1): Kirkland; Melchiot, Boyce, Scharner, Kilbane; Skoko (Koumas, 56), Taylor (King, 79); Valencia, Palacios, Bent (Sibierski, 64); Heskey) Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Brown.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Wigan Athletic Koumas, Valencia.
Man of the match: Kirkland.