Frank Lampard scored his 198th Chelsea goal to seal victory over Wigan, end a four-match winless run and ease the pressure on interim boss Rafael Benitez.
Hold the tumbrils, put away the scaffold, Rafa Benitez survives for another week. Probably, since nothing is certain at Chelsea. It was close, though. Had Mike Dean not decided Ashley Cole’s 71st-minute handball was inadvertent when he blocked Ronnie Stam’s shot in the penalty area the executioner may have been put to work.
Having barely got out of their own half Wigan had just halved Chelsea’s lead and nerves were fluttering all over Stamford Bridge. “If we had got the equaliser the end of the game would have been very interesting,” said Wigan’s manager, Roberto Martinez.
But Dean waved Wigan’s claims away and Chelsea provided a flattering gloss to the scoreline with two goals in the last four minutes. One of them, inevitably, came from Frank Lampard, who finally scored with his seventh effort of the game to take his Chelsea tally to 198, four behind Bobby Tambling’s club record. “Sign him up” came the familiar chant from the stands. Ramires, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin, with his first for the club, were Chelsea’s other scorers as they regained the third place Tottenham Hotspur had stolen into by beating Newcastle earlier in the day.
Wigan, whose reply came from Shaun Maloney, remain rooted in the bottom three with one win in 13 matches. Afterwards Benitez dismissed conjecture about his future had Chelsea’s winless run extended to five games as “just speculation”. He added: “We could have scored six. There were a lot of positives.”
According to the cliché, winning without playing well is a mark of champions, but in Chelsea’s case yesterday it simply reflected a team low on confidence and fluidity. Fortunately for them Wigan have the same problem, but without the quality of player to compensate.
Tottenham’s win had piled on the pressure for, as Andre Villas-Boas discovered last year, the one thing Roman Abramovich and his court will not countenance is the prospect of missing out on Champions’ League qualification.
Benitez responded by picking Fernando Torres ahead of Demba Ba, who was left on the bench nursing his broken nose, Petr Cech, despite a broken finger, and Hazard, following the conclusion of his ban for the ball-boy incident at Swansea. The interim manager was still without John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, set to play for Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final today, but Martinez had Arona Koné back from South Africa and on the bench.
A post-international week is often a good time to play the Premier League’s bigger sides, but the majority of Chelsea’s team had travelled no further than north London, with six of the starting XI on duty at Wembley on Wednesday, three on each side. Nevertheless it was a slow start, Torres’s powder-puff shot into Ali Al Habsi’s arms being Chelsea’s only threatening moment in the first quarter. The No 9 shirt weighs so heavily on the Spaniard these days it could be made of chain mail but, while this was the first of three bad misses he did contribute. Torres’s eagerness in pressing the ball made it hard for Wigan to play out from the back and his efforts were instrumental in Chelsea’s opener.
However long Benitez lasts in west London he will leave one legacy; the conversion of David Luiz from a fallible central defender into an influential holding midfielder. It was Luiz who broke from midfield as Wigan lost possession with players committed forward.
The Brazilian played the ball forward to Torres, who was allowed by Gary Caldwell to turn and play a clever first-time pass into the path of Ramires, whose chipped finish was excellent.
The goal was the result of Chelsea targeting the flanks left exposed by Wigan’s three-man defence and so was their second 10 minutes after the break. Gary Cahill released Cesar Azpiliueta down the right and his cross was swept in by Hazard.
Once that would have been game over, but this Chelsea struggle to close out games. A minute later Shaun Maloney’s angled run behind Branislav Ivanovic was picked out by James McArthur and Maloney rounded Cech to score. Then came the penalty incident. “It was a good shot which would have been difficult for Cech to save,” said Martinez. “It is clearly a block, then it is down to [the referee’s] interpretation. I have seen them given. The defender’s arm was not attached to his body.”
For his part, Benitez said: “It was too close [to give].” It took Lampard to end the fretting, drilling home Hazard’s pass aided by a clever dummy by Juan Mata.
Wigan then crumbled and Marin headed in after Al Habsi denied Azpilicueta. Even Torres should have scored, but the Omani goalkeeper produced a superb double save to deny him and Ramires.
Chelsea now face a trio of cup matches, the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Brentford being sandwiched by two Europa League ties with Sparta Prague, before they travel to Manchester City in the Premier League. Best not to stand down the executioner just yet.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpiliceuta, Cahill (Benayoun, 87) Ivanovic, Cole; Luiz, Lampard; Ramires, Oscar (Mata, 76) Hazard (Marin, 90); Torres.
Wigan (3-5-1-1): Al Habsi; Scharner, Caldwell, Figueroa; Stam (Jones, 83), McCarthy, McArthur, Maloney, Beausejour; Espinoza (Koné, 60); Di Santo.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Luiz (Chelsea)
Match rating: 5/10