Wigan Athletic 0 Chelsea 2: Old-style Chelsea muscle in on the top table

Click to follow
The Independent Football

After that earlier slugfest of football intellectuality at the Emirates, Chelsea made another kind of announcement. Oh, sure, it had the racy spectacle of a liberated, twinkling Shaun Wright-Phillips, but its deeper effect was of a rough slap across the face. If Arsenal and United imagine they are involved in some kind of private battle for the Premier League title, they need to think again with some urgency.

Whatever else Avram Grant lacks in long-term security, and the affection of fans who still chant the name of Jose Mourinho, he plainly has the best guarantee of day-to-day survival at the top of the game.

He has the dressing room. Misguidedly, it turns out, some of us thought it would crumble around Grant with the departure of Mourinho.

The "Special One" left Stamford Bridge with an unlikely legion of sympathisers and enough pay-off money to refloat the economy of a banana republic, but what he didn't take was the core values of the team he taught to compete so prodigiously.

Grant's seventh straight win in all competitions – and a move to within three points of the leaders – brought from him a startling assertion. "No other team," he claimed, "could have come back like this from a difficult situation."

Even when we feed in the fact that Wigan, racked by injuries and in the continued absence of the talismanic Emile Heskey, have joined the forlorn legion of the top flight's dead men walking, it was not hard to take the normally restrained Grant's point.

Whatever deference they showed to Roman Abramovich's desire for sexy football, they were unmistakably a team who knew how to put first things first. They didn't so much beat Wigan as disembowel them with two goals in 18 minutes.

The strikes were guaranteed to bring purring to the executive box. Wright-Phillips was involved in both, first running unmolested between two Wigan defenders before spoon-feeding Frank Lampard, then acrobatically, if questionably, retrieving a ball that seemed to be whizzing over the touchline and sending full-back Juliano Belleti on the long, uninterrupted run that ended with a shot swirling beyond Chris Kirkland from outside the box.

This was Belleti's most luminous moment since scoring one of the goals for Barcelona that beat Arsenal in a Champions League final – and Wright-Phillips produced some impressive advertising on behalf of himself in his first start under Grant. However, with the formality of victory, the pervading memory was not of Chelsea's new pursuit of spectacle for its own sake, but their old strength. Putting frills on them, as Mourinho so obviously felt, is a bit like sending Tarzan to Savile Row. Frank Lampard, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, were imposing pillars in a performance which spoke of the kind of regained authority which marked their farewell to last season – the relentless wearing down of the newly crowned champions, United, in the Cup final.

There may be no easy comparisons between what happened at Wembley, and so much of the time under Mourinho, and a JJB stadium ever more firmly locked into the belief that, with six straight Premier League defeats, mere survival has become the loftiest of ambition; but, even though their concentration wavered somewhat in the second half, Chelsea were unquestionably making a statement about future plans. The central one is that Arsenal and Manchester United might indeed have to yield a little more room at the top table.

Wayne Bridge's return to the team provoked in him some of Grant's belief that the days of uncertainty may well have passed. He claimed, "We're looking like the old Chelsea. We want to stay as close as possible to the top. I don't know whether the spotlight on Arsenal and United is going to work in our favour, but we have so many players who can go out and win games. We put pressure on teams and as soon as they slip up we're on their tail. We're positive. Everyone is going out feeling that way."

Also showing that old instinct to pulverise the opposition were a couple of the newer boys, John Obi Mikel and Florent Malouda. While Wigan responded to the call of manager Chris Hutchings for a manly attempt at scaling the second-half "mountain" with some spirit, and produced occasional possibilities, Chelsea were relentless in the tackle at critical moments, and the work rate of such as Mikel and Malouda was at times close to phenomenal.

Grant refused to be drawn into measuring his team against either Arsenal or United, but said there was no mystery about his strongest hand. "I have a lot of good players," he said.

What he also has, for the moment at least, is that supreme asset of the Mourinho years – a team showing no inclination to stand back and admire the proficiency of their own work. No one exemplified this more than the relentless Essien. On several occasions he dispossessed Wigan at some distance. To see him coming, all solid bone and unswerving conviction, seemed to be enough to persuade Wigan to surrender the ball.

For Hutchings, it was all a little too much of an exercise in well-intentioned futility. Inevitably, he sighed when he said, "We talked about Frank Lampard getting into the box, which he does week in and week out, and then we let him do just that. So we gave ourselves a mountain to climb."

Hutchings, a decent football man who refused to bleed over a couple of possible penalty calls refused by the referee, Steve Bennett, was left with just one shred of comfort. It was that managers with vastly greater resources may also soon be calling for the grappling irons. Even Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger may feel they are not entirely exempt.

Goals: Lampard (11) 0-1; Belletti (18) 0-2.

Wigan Athletic (4-5-1) Kirkland; Melchiot, Granqvist, Bramble, Kilbane; Valencia, Brown (Skoko, 85), Scharner, Landzaat (Sibierski, 82), Koumas; M Bent. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Boyce, Aghahowa.

Chelsea (4-3-2-1): Cech; Belletti, Alex, Carvalho, Bridge; Essien (Sidwell, 76), Mikel, Lampard; Wright-Phillips, Malouda; Drogba (Kalou, 75). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Ben Haim, Shevchenko.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Wigan Landzaat, Bramble; Chelsea Drogba.

Man of the match: Essien.

Attendance: 19,001.