Chelsea's bleak midwinter entered an icy new depression here last night. "We will win," manager Carlo Ancelotti had promised – yet it was Wolves, who propped up the entire Premier League at kick off, who took the spoils, clinging to them for 85 minutes after Jose Bosingwa's unwitting own goal.
This latest catastrophe for last season's Double winners effectively ended their title challenge. After taking just 10 points from 11 matches – their worst run since 1995-96 – Chelsea stand nine adrift of Manchester United and have played a game more. Sunderland, whose victory at Aston Villa helped Wolves out of the relegation zone, lie only two points behind Chelsea, threatening the top-four spot they have long taken for granted.
Afterwards, Ancelotti insisted "nothing is lost" at this stage, though he added grimly: "Obviously it is going to be difficult to come back in the League, but there's still the Champions' League and FA Cup. We have to keep fighting but the gap is not so good."
Asked whether he would be surprised if he was sacked, the Italian replied: "Yes. But it's not my decision. I hope I can continue in the job. I have a good relationship with the players and they have the skill and character to move on."
As for his rash prediction, Ancelotti shrugged and conceded: "I did a mistake." His Wolves counterpart Mick McCarthy admitted he "did mention it" in his pre-match talk. He added: "We'll probably have only 10 good days out of 38 in a season. The rest of the time we have to put up with feeling bad."
McCarthy, who had to separate Didier Drogba from Chelsea bête noire Stephen Hunt at the final whistle, also savoured an unexpected compliment from the losers. "John Terry told me, 'You're as good a team as we've played all season and you shouldn't be where you are'. I don't think he knew we were out of the bottom three!"
The goal arrived before Chelsea could show the renewed vigour Ancelotti detected against Villa and Bolton. Petr Cech had already been forced to make a desperate save from a long, swerving drive by Ronald Zubar. From the corner, driven low to the near post by Hunt, Steven Fletcher flicked the ball on, whereupon it hit Bosingwa on the shins and shot into the net.
Hunt's role added to the chagrin of Chelsea's followers. Their booing indicated they have not forgiven the Irishman for his involvement in the incident at Reading which resulted in Cech sustaining a serious head injury in 2006. Nor, it seemed, had Terry. After Hunt was penalised in the first half, he picked the ball up as he protested his innocence to referee Mark Halsey. The Chelsea captain, never to be outdone in the petulance stakes, grabbed at the scruff of Hunt's neck before Mr Halsey called them together for a ticking off.
For Wolves, the challenge once they had scored was to keep a clean sheet, which they had managed only twice previously. However, Birmingham had also struck early against Chelsea, holding on to win 1-0 in November, and the contest swiftly began to resemble the one at St Andrew's, the visitors piling forward and the home crowd cheering every tackle and clearance.
As the pressure intensified, Salomon Kalou came close to an equaliser midway through the first half when he connected with Florent Malouda's cross at the near post. Wayne Hennessey somehow kept the ball out with an outstretched foot.
Hennessey, like Ben Foster at Birmingham, appeared inspired by the task of defying Chelsea, who resumed their territorial dominance after the break. In the 53rd minute a one-two between Kalou and Frank Lampard led to the England player playing in his team-mate with a back-heeled pass. Faced by the onrushing keeper, Kalou angled his shot narrowly wide.
Drogba's contribution to Ancelotti's cause had not been conspicuous, but in the 66th minute he turned sharply and beat Hennessey from 10 yards. To Wolves' relief, the ball struck the base off the post.
Chelsea's anguish would have been deeper still had Hunt scored, and it almost happened in the 70th minute. This time, as his 20-yard free-kick smacked the angle of post and bar, the woodwork rescued Cech. Whether Ancelotti can save himself remains to be seen. It appears Roman Abramovich will either have to back him, funding some big spending in the transfer market, or send him the way of Jose Mourinho and Big Phil Scolari.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Hennessey; Zubar, Stearman, Berra, Elokobi; Hunt, Foley, Edwards, Jarvis; Doyle (Ward, 70), Fletcher (Ebanks-Blake, 69, Milijas, 82). Substitutes not used Hahnemann (gk), Jones, Batth, Doherty.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Ramires (Sturridge, 72), Essien, Lampard; Kalou (Anelka, 66), Drogba, Malouda (Kakuta, 79). Substitutes not used Turnbull (gk), Ferreira, Bruma, McEachran.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Match rating 7/10.
Man of the match Hunt.