Wigan cruelly denied by Crespo

 

SOCCER: Wigan Athletic 1, Chelsea 0 Wigan's ascent to the Premiership may be mind-boggling, but it was Chelsea who hardly knew where they were. The champions found their bearings only for a split-second and yet that instant of perfection ruined the day for Paul Jewell's side. All the same, there was no luck to Hernan Crespo's goal.

The vindictiveness was in the timing, with three minutes of stoppage time nearly completed. After Didier Drogba had scrapped for possession Crespo gathered 20 yards from the target at an angle on the right. The superlative Arjan de Zeeuw hovered in front of him circumspectly, expecting this attack to shrivel like all the others. The Argentinian was obliged to manipulate the ball on to his weaker, left foot, but he steered it high past the right hand of the goalkeeper Mike Pollitt. Apologies took precedence over celebrations for the Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

Exquisite as the winner was, Chelsea could not cherish it when they had just plumbed depths they never experienced all last season. It was a performance of inky blackness. Here was the confirmation of the double threat to Premiership holders. They can be weakened from within by the creeping assumption they are entitled to triumph and punctured, too, by opponents who sense a game such as this is one of the great events of their careers.

Wigan were wonderful. Jewell gave five players their competitive debut, with De Zeeuw, in addition, settling back into life with his old club after leaving Portsmouth. Wigan backed one another with far more conviction than Chelsea showed.

Stamford Bridge mainstays such as Frank Lampard could not get the match to pay him any attention. In one symptomatic episode, after Damien Francis had overpowered him on the edge of the penalty area, the quick, boisterous Henri Camara crossed to Alan Mahon, who fired negligently high.

Lampard was far from being the weakest member of a line-up in which every outfield player was harried. Even John Terry glimpsed Camara running breezily past him to draw a save from Petr Cech in the fourth minute. It was no surprise he collected a gash on his foot that, despite needing two stitches, should not rule him out of England's friendly with Denmark.

Every other member of the Chelsea side came away from the JJB stadium with scar tissue as well, even if it was only on their psyches. Damien Duff may have required a sharp save from Pollit but he and Arjen Robben, on whom attacks so often depend, were bumblers.

And yet Chelsea were not beneficiaries of some kind of fluke. Even with their system in disarray, they had the means to slay opponents. If Wigan are to be faulted at all it is purely for an understandable lack of composure as pulses raced and minds boggled. Seconds before Crespo scored, Damien Franics should have put Andreas Johansson clear, but his pass was late and asked the substitute to convert an awkward volley. The opportunity was lost.

There can be only admiration for the endless enterprise of Wigan, whose line-up was built for under half of Crespo's £16.8 million price. Even as weariness was swamping them, Francis, with eight minutes remaining, headed a Gary Teale delivery on to the top of the bar.

Shaun Wright-Phillips, on for Robben, was a help to Chelsea and, comfortingly for England, Joe Cole also made a difference by taking over from Gudjohnsen. Nonetheless, Pollit blocked when he had to and De Zeeuw appeared endlessly capable of unanswerable challenges.

Wigan's prospects of survival in the top flight will not be known until we discover whether yesterday's form can be sustained. That was, rightly, too dreary a question for the locals to debate here. No one can deny them the anticipation aroused by the arrival of fresh players and the redoubled efforts of those they know well.

Chelsea were disgusted with themselves but their problems did not arise merely from a lapse in standards. Pascal Chimbonda, the Wigan right-back born in Guadeloupe, sealed off his wing no matter who Mourinho pitted against him and also had the breath left to overlap with gusto.

Another debutant, Camara, made himself a deeper enigma than ever. Having gone under with Wolves and then Southampton he is aiming to dodge a third consecutive relegation, but there has always been spasmodic proof of power and talent. Yesterday he scared even Chelsea's intimidating back four.

Late on, the visitors were in such disarray William Gallas volleyed a throw-in from Asier Del Horno behind his own goal for a corner. If Wigan can somehow go on spreading such panic it will be others who are left to face the terrors of relegation.