It was then that Hernan Crespo scored a goal that not only articulated the cruelty of life in the Premiership to the people of Wigan but reminded the rest of English football that Jose Mourinho's champions are not easily denied victory.
Wigan came so close, but then no team in the past 12 months has taken such ruthless hold of their own destiny as Chelsea. For much of this game they found themselves out-fought by Paul Jewell's team and, at times, teetered on the brink of a defeat that would have impacted on the hierarchy of this league like no other result.
In the end, Mourinho had to search deep into the rich depths of his expensive squad to summon a victory and, when it arrived, Crespo's goal was worthy of any occasion.
Until the 93rd minute there had been more promise in the Wigan attack. Then Didier Drogba challenged for a ball in the air, possession fell to Crespo 25 yards from goal and the Argentinian launched a dipping shot out of Mike Pollitt's reach. On the front row of the directors' box, Roman Abramovich's billionaire entourage celebrated with gleeful relief and Crespo was engulfed by his team-mates, but as the Chelsea bench cleared Mourinho simply shook his head and glanced across at Jewell.
It was a rare expression of sympathy towards an opponent from the Portuguese coach and, in a league where jobs and reputations are imperilled every week, it was a moment to prize. Mourinho is the manager who leaves nothing to chance, whose meticulous preparation is an exercise in closing down the great variables of football, but even he knew, as he later admitted, that Chelsea had been granted one of the game's great escapes.
"They didn't deserve to lose the game," Mourinho said. "In that game you couldn't tell who were the Championship champions and who were the Premiership champions. The two teams were exactly the same. My defenders were brilliant in difficult circumstances. At times we were too slow and some of the players didn't look motivated.
"At half-time I told them, 'Don't come knocking on my door crying that you are not in the team because now I have to make changes.'I feel sorry for Wigan and I don't feel they deserved to lose, but that's football."
Wigan's moment to win came just moments before Crespo's goal when a Chelsea corner was cleared and Gary Teale broke into the visitors' half. He crossed for substitute Andreas Johansson at the back post but, with the stadium on its feet, the Swede was unable to give his newly promoted team the goal they craved. At times, the Chelsea defence had found itself ravaged by the running of Henri Camara and Jason Roberts, but they never quite succumbed.
In midfield, Jimmy Bullard, a West Ham trainee like his opposite number Frank Lampard, was exceptional and the new defensive pairing of Stephane Henchoz and Arjan de Zeeuw were comfortable against Drogba. Jewell may well have introduced a new term for despair into the football lexicon when he described his team as being "as sick as pigs", but in the circumstances even that seemed appropriate.
The Wigan manager said that his team would survive in the Premiership if they were to perform like that every week. "We gave everything we got and I am happy with the performance," he said. "If there's a way to lose then that is it because the players left no stone unturned trying to win that match. It was a wonder goal by Crespo."
In the first half, Camara was stopped by a save from Petr Cech and created a good opening for Alan Mahon which the midfielder struck over. Arjen Robben and Eidur Gudjohnsen gave way at half-time for Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole before Crespo came on as Mourinho tried to lend urgency to his team's attacks. Chelsea's grip on the game became stronger in the second half but Damien Francis still clipped the bar with a header on 82 minutes.
There had been an escape for Wigan on 79 minutes when Teale may have handled Asier del Horno's cross, yet even Mourinho did not criticise the referee Mark Clattenburg.
In the town where George Orwell set his treatise on the poverty of the English working class, Britain's wealthiest man arrived in his helicopter rather than on the road to Wigan pier. Abramovich left having been reminded that the gap between the rich and the poor is not as great as he may have thought.
Goal: Crespo (90) 0-1.
Wigan (4-4-2): Pollitt; Chimbonda, Henchoz, De Zeeuw, Baines; Teale, Francis, Bullard, Mahon; Camara (Johansson, 86), Roberts. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Jackson, Taylor, McMillan.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Gallas, Del Horno; Makelele; Duff (Crespo, 59), Lampard, Gudjohnsen (Wright-Phillips, h-t), Robben (Cole, h-t); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Huth.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
Booked: Wigan Mahon.
Man of the match: Bullard.
Attendance: 23,575.Reuse content