Return to winning ways a timely boost for Chelsea and Benitez
Wigan Athletic's James McCarthy (left) and Chelseas Emboaba Oscar in action at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Chelsea 4 Wigan 1:Cesar Azpilicueta is still adjusting to the pantomime that life at Chelsea is prone to be but, even now, he has recognised the season to date has been “strange”. Every hint of sloppiness had been punished over recent weeks, each spluttering result fuelling suspicions that the interim first-team manager might not even see out his temporary employment.
Those fears were allayed for a while by a win over Wigan, although, right on cue, the week ahead brings the Europa League and a step into the unknown.
Chelsea should at least travel to Sparta Prague buoyed by a timely victory, their first in five matches, even if they remain a squad yearning for normality.
European champions should not find themselves deposited among the second-string, and it is equally unsatisfactory that a domestic challenge now centres solely on finishing in the top four. Throw in the discord in the stands over Rafael Benitez’s presence, and the uncertainty over Frank Lampard’s future, and the realities are all rather unsettling.
The fact that around 400 fans attempted to gain entry post-match to the launch meeting of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, a body that hopes to deliver greater dialogue with the club’s hierarchy, was a reflection of the anxiety this season has generated. Yet, as inadequate as it all feels, there is a recognition of what must be achieved.
“We know we have to stay in the top four for the stability of the club,” Azpilicueta said. “We need to go step by step.”
The right-back’s galloping sprints and delivery from the right flank wounded Wigan, and he supplied Eden Hazard with a goal on his return from suspension and Marko Marin with his first for Chelsea.
By then the hosts felt comfortable, with Lampard having eased the nerves with his 198th goal for the club. Asked whether the 34-year-old could play at the World Cup in 2014, a roundabout way of seeking out whether he can excel at the top level beyond the expiry of his contract, Benitez said: “Yes. He is a good pro. If he has no injuries, he can still play at a good level.”
That issue is likely to drag on until the summer, although for now Benitez can rejoice in some strength in depth from the bench and Victor Moses and Mikel John Obi returning from the Africa Cup of Nations.
Wigan threatened a recovery from two goals down after Shaun Maloney had pilfered an immediate riposte. But Ashley Cole’s handball went unpunished and, with the visitors open to the counter, they were eventually picked apart.