The Champions League. Often touted as ‘bigger than the World Cup‘, it’s a tournament in which every footballer this side of the Atlantic aspires to compete. But it don’t half clog up your fixture list, does it? One only has to ask Chelsea, fighting hard to stay in the title race –a losing battle of late– whilst simultaneously having to find resources to mount a serious European challenge.
The Blues face three games in eight days, today’s match sandwiched between two midweek Champions League encounters with Man United. A tough ask for the best of teams, but Carlo Ancelotti has a star-studded squad at his disposal, affording him the luxury of being able to drop world beater Fernando Torres and still have the likes of Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba to fill the gap for this afternoon. Oh, and you can throw Yossi Benayoun into the mix as well. With no injury worries, fielding a more than competitive team was far from a problem for the Italian.
Latics couldn’t exactly match the Blues in terms of international stars (though the recent international week saw eleven players depart to represent their country), but a recent run of good form provided hope that their team would finally ‘click’ some two years into the reign of Messrs. Martinez and Jones. Things haven’t been too far off the mark in the last eight games, with only the inability to place the ball in the net hampering Wigan. The main problem facing Bobby’s men is that if things don’t fall into place within the next few games it’s back the Championship, if not the drawing board.
Their most immediate challenge, however, came today with a trip to London and a doubtless daunting day out at the Bridge. Minds were cast back to the same fixture almost precisely three years ago when Emile Heskey put a huge dent in Chelsea’s 2007-08 title challenge as the Pensioners failed to put away their chances, due in part to an on-song Chris Kirkland. Latics fans would be hoping for a repeat, hopefully better as they struggle against the drop.
Bob’s men could conceivably have had a point this afternoon but will have to settle for just a 1-0 loss which, if results go our way, is not too bad a result. A mixture of good defending, fortune and Ali Al Habsi ensured their defence remained unbreached save for a rather scrappy goal on 67 minutes, and, whilst the visitors didn’t have much in the way of attacking play, more than held their own against the title challengers.
Latics initially set out to control the ball in midfield as per usual, with five men in the middle of the park and Charles N’Zogbia providing sole striker Rodallega with support. Hugo did a very good job winning free kicks –mainly from Luiz– and generally putting himself about in the opposition half. Also as per usual, it didn’t create too much in the way of shots on target – none, in fact. The emphasis here was more on controlling the ball, however, so the standard 4-5-1 was a more than justifiable setup away to a top-of-the-table team and just so happened to be the one Roberto plumped for.
That was, until the 63rd minute when, in a bold yet somehow predictable move, Rodallega and N’Zogbia were once again removed from play to be replaced by Di Santo and Sammon. Now, I would never be against Conor making an appearance, but something’s afoot when Di Santo is being drafted in with the best part of half an hour to play. As it happened, he experienced mixed fortunes but struggled to make very many passes and suffered from a heavy touch or two, but held up play quite well on more than one occasion. I’d still play McManaman instead, however.
Unfortunately, it was shortly after the double substitution that Wigan conceded. It was somewhat disappointing to see the ball bundled in at the back post through a sea of men from Florent Malouda after all the good defensive work done by the back line. Actually, you do have to factor in some poor Chelsea finishing, which wasn’t as good as we’ve seen on previous occasions this season – not least at the DW back in August. That said, the hosts could literally have had eight with the chances they created, and large credit must go to Al Habsi who proved Latics’ saviour on two separate occasions, once at 0-0 and once in the dying stages at 1-0 Chelsea.
Wigan’s best chance came via Franco Di Santo with less than five minutes to play, but the Argentine’s header didn’t cause Petr Cech too much trouble. It was more a flick towards the back post than anything, but represented the best the visitors could offer throughout the afternoon. That came during a period when Wigan began to show a bit more of what they can do, attacking-wise, especially when Victor Moses was relieved of his bench warming duties (Diame, 85 minutes). It wasn’t to be enough, however, even though the visitors experienced a lot more possession as they pushed for a late equaliser.
On the plus side, to borrow a phrase used precisely 34,097,222 times since the dawn of man (or at least the Football League), the only way is up now, surely? At the very least, we have moved closer to West Ham and Wolves (albeit on goal difference) for the second week in a row. Wins, however, are a must from hereon in otherwise you can kiss goodbye to top flight football in Wigan for at least another year.