Blues cruise eases Benitez's anxiety
For one team, this was a repeat of recent history. For the other, it was a break from it. Because, as the game ticked into its crucial final quarter, Wigan's increasing pressure seemed to be paying off. Suddenly, with the ball pinging across the Chelsea area, it appeared to hit Ashley Cole's arm in the box. There was undeniably a moment's anxiety. Or, rather, a spike in anxiety.
Chelsea, after all, had squandered two 2-0 leads in their previous four league games and conceded a total of seven goals after 70 minutes in their last ten matches in all competitions. Despite the general comfort they had been playing with before their own second goal, there were no guarantees about this. Referee Mike Dean, however, couldn't guarantee that Cole's handball had been intentional and waved it away.
For the second season in a row, Wigan had been undone at Stamford Bridge by a borderline late decision. But by the end the scoreline was anything but borderline. Chelsea claimed a first win in five and ensured it was them, rather than the opposition, that finally enjoyed the full benefit of late goals.
That benefit didn't just extend to the ultimate 4-1 scoreline, but also to the general mood of the two teams. After the game, Roberto Martinez spoke of how "the goals really changed the momentum of the game". Although that is rather obvious given they ultimately decided the destination of the points, it felt even more true on this occasion given that these seem to be two 'confidence sides'.
For the first 23 minutes, Stamford Bridge was quite quiet, both in terms of the action on the pitch and the atmosphere in the stands. With only the 16th-minute singing for Roberto Di Matteo breaking that, Wigan perhaps sensed it could be their day. But, with Martinez's side pushing up a bit too high, they were immediately caught on the break.
David Luiz fed Fernando Torres from deep, he pushed the ball on for Ramires, and the Brazilian lifted the ball over Ali Al-Habsi for a gloriously sleek goal. Immediately it had the effect of smoothing out all of Chelsea's rough edges. For the next 20 minutes, they were in complete control. An on-form and busy-looking Torres had a header touched over, while Gary Caldwell was forced to remonstrate with his goalkeeper as a mix-up almost resulted in another. It reflected the pressure Wigan were under.
Just when it seemed to ease and Wigan looked like coming back into it, Chelsea struck again. Cesar Azpilicueta cut back for Eden Hazard to roll the ball home - even if Al-Habsi should have done better. Then we saw exactly the kind of thing Martinez was talking about. The exceptionally curious psychology of football was emphasised in an instant.
Although Chelsea had been so comfortable at 1-0, the manner in which Wigan then immediately pulled it back to 2-1 completely changed the dynamic of the game. Shaun Maloney caught both Gary Cahill and Petr Cech out from the kick-off, rounded the goalkeeper and just about squeezed the ball in. Now it was Chelsea that were being squeezed. And, for a significant stretch, it seemed like they might give way.
Instead, Cole's 'handball' was waved away and we saw another momentum-changing goal. Martinez smiled about how he's "seen those decisions given"... but usually for sides like Chelsea. For his part, the Wigan manager didn't make much of a fuss about it.
He said: "It's one of those difficult decisions. Probably the referees need a little bit of clarity. I always tell my defenders not to put themselves in a situation where there could be penalty. It's down to the referee's interpretation.
"I do feel goals really changed the momentum of game. Especially in the first half. I felt we were very close to Chelsea and, if we could have got an equaliser, the ending of the game would have been very, very interesting."
Rather than an equaliser, though, we only got Frank Lampard coming closer to levelling Bobby Tambling's all-time Chelsea scoring record. After a superb dummy from substitute Juan Mata, the midfielder lashed the ball home. In stoppage-time, Mark Markin then got his first goal for the club, reacting first to an Al-Habsi parry.
Pointedly, Benitez felt that it was the ability to bring on options like Mata - as well as stick Luiz back at centre-half - that explained the difference between Chelsea ultimately streaking clear in this game and getting pegged back in others. He said: "We could change players. Before [due to injuries], we didn't have this option."
At the end of an ultimately routine win - at least in terms of the scoreline - the real question is whether results like this will cause breaks from the past in other senses for these teams.
Can Chelsea stay in the top four and secure an 11th successive season of Champions League football? "We are still confident," Benitez said.
Can Wigan overcome such setbacks to stay up again? "It is a real concern because we haven't got the points we wanted," Martinez admitted. "Looking at the points tally that we want, the last third [of the season] is when everything happens. Internally we have to make sure everyone is back from injury. It's really exciting time ahead."
And, after a result like today's, it will be an exacting one - at both ends, and for both teams.