Last April Emile Heskey stunned Stamford Bridge with an equalising goal for Wigan in the final minute that effectively ended Chelsea's hopes of winning the Premier League. Yesterday, although Heskey is long gone, they appeared to have pulled off a similar trick when Olivier Kapo scored nine minutes from the end, only for Frank Lampard to defeat them with a header right at the start of added time.
So Guus Hiddink, having overseen 1-0 victories against Aston Villa and Juventus, watched his new team produce something altogether more dramatic and move into second place in the table ahead of Liverpool. He has placed the necessary rocket underneath Didier Drogba, who has often looked jet-propelled in those three matches. Nicolas Anelka unselfishly worked the left flank again and behind that pair, Lampard was once again exemplary. Michael Mancienne, deputising for Jose Bosingwa in only his second start at this level, endured a difficult first 20 minutes like the rest of his team but settled down thereafter, even though he regards central defence and not right-back as his best position.
Wigan, 18th at the end of October, have risen to seventh place and are among the small group no longer worried by relegation. After losing Heskey and Wilson Palacios in the transfer window, they are nevertheless facing a tricky period and Kapo's goal was only the second in seven games, none of them won. Steve Bruce was delighted with the performance here and felt Lampard's goal should have been disallowed for a push on his former Chelsea team-mate Mario Melchiot. "You need the referee to be strong and not be influenced," he said. "We've seen it happen all the time against little Wigan."
Hiddink, who felt a penalty might just as easily have been given to Chelsea in the build-up, said: "We reacted well after the equaliser. Playing after a Wednesday game in Europe is always difficult and Wigan are a hard-working team who played decent football." They certainly did so in that early period, and the home side had to overcome a muted atmosphere and then a series of Wigan chances before exerting any control and taking an undeserved lead.
It was symbolic of the pressure they came under that both centre-halves, Alex and John Terry, received yellow cards in the first 20 minutes for heavy tackles and had to tread carefully thereafter. Florescent lime shirts flooded forward in a manner not expected of a team who had just played three successive goalless draws. Petr Cech saved from Paul Scharner, who was clear on goal, and from one of several corners Titus Bramble placed a firm header past the goalkeeper that Ashley Cole hacked off the line. Before the ball was cleared Maynor Figueroa forced Cech to save with his foot.
A surprising game was midway through its first half before Chelsea, and with them the crowd, suddenly came to life. In the 24th minute Wigan were caught out by a short corner on the left that allowed Lampard to take Cole's pass and cross into a crowded penalty area. Emmerson Boyce headed out straight to Terry, whose smart left-footed volley took a slight deflection off the unfortunate Boyce on its way past Chris Kirkland. OPT CUTThe captain will claim it as his 35th goal for the club, not least because that takes him past Peter Sillett's record as the highest scoring defender in Chelsea's history.
Before half-time the increasingly busy Kirkland saved from Alex, Drogba and Lampard. Bramble cleared off the line from Ballack, who was given offside, and then again from Drogba, who had made a fine run onto Lampard's pass. There were no clear chances for a long spell after that, which made the dramatic denouement all the less predictable as Wigan found a second wind. Scharner at the far post headed Figueroa's cross over the bar and Amr Zaki curled a 20 yard shot wide. Then Figueroa crossed from the left and Anelka, tracking back, was unable to prevent Kapo stealing in to score from close range.
There was still time for further heroics from Chelsea's England contingent, who have served them so well this season. Terry lofted the ball upfield and Lampard was far enough forward to send his header from Ballack's flick arcing gently over poor Kirkland.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies