Chelsea stop the rot against Wigan

Posted by Phil Lythell

Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesFrank Lampard once again stood out for Chelsea with a superb second-half goal against Wigan that put the match on ice for the Blues.

If ever a team needed a win, it was Chelsea. Facing a Wigan side mired in their usual fight against relegation, it was the very least that was expected, though refreshingly this time the players came up trumps as they eventually swept to a 4-1 win.

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The Blues have contested a raft of eminently winnable games in 2013 yet have contrived to self-destruct with regularity, with the Latics' rivals for the drop -- QPR, Southampton and Reading -- all taking at least a point off the European champions in recent weeks. Factor in the inertia against Swansea and the near-humiliation at Brentford and it has been a fallow new year for Chelsea.

The players needed a win, the fans needed a win, and above all, Rafael Benitez needed a win. And it was duly delivered.

With Chelsea's penchant for throwing points away from winning positions, the most pleasing element of this match was the response from the team once they conceded a soft goal to allow the Lancastrians back into the match. A familiar feeling rang around Stamford Bridge as supporters braced themselves for the expected implosion that has undermined this campaign on several occasions.

Instead, the men in blue decided to seize the initiative once again and press forward. There was no thought of sitting back and ceding possession in an effort to mass ranks behind the ball. They displayed an urgency to kill the game off with a third goal. Their efforts were ultimately rewarded, and it is to be hoped that the same attitude will be adopted if and when the team finds itself in a similar scenario in the future.

It was also encouraging to see the team manage to win a match without the considerable influence of Juan Mata. The Spaniard was introduced as a second-half substitute but not until the 77th minute. His arrival did coincide with the goals that ended Wigan's challenge, but much of the job had been done already without relying on the club's standout performer this season. The return of Eden Hazard helped to offset Mata's omission; the Belgian growing into the game throughout the first half before stepping up a couple of gears after the break. Hazard has been missed during his suspension, and it was a relief to see the creative burden lifted from Mata's shoulders.

There was an extra solidity about Chelsea, and a large reason for that was the performance of Cesar Azpilicueta. The 23-year-old had a near flawless game in defence and attack, exhibiting every attribute needed from a top-class fullback. He was quick to sniff out danger when Wigan had the ball, using his pace to close space down quickly and a newfound strength to win tackles. His distribution was intelligent, and his delivery from the flanks was consistently good. So impressive was his display that it was only right that he played a significant part in one of the goals; his fierce drive parried into the path of Marko Marin to score the final goal in injury time.

Azpilicueta's compatriot, Fernando Torres, can also look back on a good day's work. He might not have scored, but he was a permanent nuisance to the visitors' back line, chasing down lost causes and contributing decisive moments to the match, not least his exquisite first-time pass for Ramires' opening goal. Torres came close to being on the scoresheet himself through two first-half headers, and it was only Ali Al-Habsi's astonishing reflexes that prevented him from finding the back of the net just before the final whistle.

And it would be remiss not to reflect on yet another goal for the irrepressible Frank Lampard. Whatever the truth behind the midweek rumours concerning a new deal for the veteran, one thing is clear: Lampard is a one-off. Although a midfielder, he has the killer instinct of a trained assassin, and there is nobody on the Chelsea squad that you would prefer a chance to fall to, Mata included. His drilled finish was not just admirable in its execution but also in its timing given that it was the strike that killed off the opposition and allowed supporters and management alike to relax safe in the knowledge that a precious three points had been secured. How Torres must wish that some of Lampard's magic could rub off on him.

The crowd left Stamford Bridge with a much-needed smile on their faces, but whatever sense of relief the natives will have felt will have paled into insignificance next to Benitez's. With the back pages of the morning's newspapers all predicting his impending doom should events go against him, the manager can spend a Sunday relaxing in the knowledge that Roman Abramovich will not be springing the trapdoor just yet.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell.

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