On a ground where they won 6-0 last season, Chelsea found the going far harder yesterday evening and were denied a victory that would have cut the gap on second-placed Manchester United to two points and Manchester City to four ahead of today's games involving the leading pair.
Daniel Sturridge further enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a well taken goal in the second half before Wigan's late rally brought an equaliser from Jordi Gomez that even Chelsea's manager Andre Villas-Boas admitted they deserved. It leaves Roberto Martinez's team in the bottom three but with the bonus of defeats for Lancastrian rivals in distress Blackburn and Bolton this was a welcome start to a demanding programme that brings games with Liverpool and United next.
From a run that brought nine successive defeats in all competitions, Martinez has reshaped his troops and instilled new belief in them too, leading to successive away victories and now a point against a side he called "one of the elite teams of world football". Chelsea did not live up to that billing and on the long journey home last night must have been bitterly regretting the failure to steal a march on the teams around them.
Villas-Boas was forced to admit that they lacked creativity and penetration, which was why he took off Oriol Romeu at half-time and changed to a 4-2-3-1 formation. It appeared to have paid off with Sturridge's goal, but the gamble to sit back thereafter was flawed, allowing Wigan to gain the initiative for the first time after an ineffective first half.
"We could have gone on for the second goal but decided to hold on and try to exploit the spaces," the manager said. They failed in both objectives and paid a heavy price after a rare lapse by Petr Cech for the equalising goal. Martinez was understandably delighted, all the more so since his team had folded to a 4-0 defeat after conceding the first goal in their last home game against Arsenal. "If you concede like that and accept it then you give the game up" he said. There was never any chance of that and his double substitution in bringing on the strikers Franco Di Santo – against his old club – and Hugo Rodallega proved crucial.
Four successive Chelsea victories appeared to have restored any flagging confidence and early on the visitors flowed forward confidently with Sturridge particularly threatening. That meant that David Jones, nominally one of the wing-backs in Wigan's unusual 3-4-2-1 formation, was forced backwards when he would have wanted to be pushing on. By half-time Chelsea had nevertheless been restricted to shots from distance, mostly by defensive players. Romeu, now established in the holding role, hit the first and Terry the second, both going the wrong side of a post. The same fate befell the closest effort of the opening half, when Raul Meireles crossed for Didier Drogba to stoop for a brave low header from six yards.
Apart from a drive by Mohamed Diamé, also wide – though not by much – Wigan were dependent on the referee Martin Atkinson awarding them a penalty, which to the crowd's fury he was notably reluctant to do. A collision between Ashley Cole and Gomez early on brought the first optimistic shouts and there seemed to be merit in the appeals when Branislav Ivanovic blocked a fierce shot by Victor Moses with his arm just before the interval.
For the second half Villas-Boas brought on Salomon Kalou, moving Frank Lampard – who had returned for the injured Ramires after being dropped – and Meireles deeper. Lampard continued to see plenty of the ball and knock it around intelligentlybut it was further forward that Chelsea needed some inspiration. It came at last when he was off the field having prolonged treatment for a bang in the face. Ashley Cole carried the ball forward to a position just inside the Wigan half then played a perfect diagonal pass over the retreating defence for Sturridge, who took it down with his left foot and shot low across Ali Al Habsi into the far corner.
This time Wigan refused to submit and took control for the first time. Maynor Figueroa, culpable in not tracking Sturridge closely enough for the goal, hit a left-footed shot from 25 yards that Cech had to push round the post for his first save of the night and suddenly the defence were looking vulnerable. They survived one bizarre incident in which Rodallega was foiled by Cech, who was lying on the ground as Di Santo had a follow-up shot headed off the line by Ivanovic. And with two minutes left Cech failed wretchedly to hold a toe-poke from the left by Rodallega, Gomez tapping in for his fourth goal in five games.
Wigan (3-4-2-1): Al Habsi; Caldwell, Alcatraz, Figuero; Stam, Diame, McCarthy, Jones (Rodallega, 72); Moses, Gomez; Sammon (Di Santo, 73).
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Lampard, Romeu (Kalou, h-t), Meireles; Sturridge (Malouda, 80), Drogba, Mata (Mikel, 66).
Referee Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match Sturridge (Chelsea).
Match rating 7/10.