2:50pm. An expectant Stamford Bridge eagerly awaits the entrance of Wigan’s gladiators and Chelsea’s lions for a potentially season-defining contest. This is almost certainly the case for Rafa Benitez, who is one narrow loss away from burning chips at Burger World this time next week, at least if you believe all you read in the blogosphere.
Though fellow Spaniard Roberto Martinez enjoys the altogether more comfortable situation of having an eternally faithful chairman that would gladly employ him for life, his club’s position just inside the relegation zone is equally as daunting.
But as kickoff draws near, there is no sign of either side. Not one player has taken the field for their usual pre-match warmups or autograph-signing obligations – what’s going on?
Without warning, previously-hidden smoke machines fill one half of the stadium with a dense artificial fog. The cacophony of 5,000 confused spectators simultaneously clearing their throat is just enough to drown out thundering heavy metal music that begins to blast from the Stamford Bridge PR system.
From out of the haze stumble two leotard-clad figures, escorted by some bloke in a suit. Wait, that can’t be… former world wrestling champion Hulk Hogan, can it? And what, those two half-dressed blokes – they’re… *rubs eyes* Benitez and Martinez?!
As the laughter begins to subside (some ten minutes later), there comes a familiar, Spanish-Scouse accented voice: “Roberto Martinez, I challenge you and the Wiganmaniacs to an all-or nothing soccer game here at Stamford Bridge, TONIGHT!”
Before his opposite number has time to even think of a witty response, the players come hurtling out of the tunnel and hurriedly shove the match ball onto the centre spot.
“Enough of the formalities,” announces an impatient Hogan, “let’s get it on!”
Wigan took to this new, ultra-commercialised Premier League format like a juiced-up British Bulldog, creating two excellent shooting opportunities before the referee could finish his obligatory pre-fight spiel. Franco Di Santo was first to test Petr Cech’s fingers, almost converting Maynor Figueroa’s centre on 6 minutes. Maloney also came close to curling one into the top corner shortly after, but his favouring of power over placement allowed the Czech to pluck the ball from the air with relative comfort.
The hosts began to take over as Torres and Oscar gave Al Habsi plenty to do. Though the former headed just wide when the Omani slipped on his line, Chelsea’s pressure was soon to tell. Nascimento Ramires completed a Wigan-esque passing move with class, though to be honest, the through ball was so great he didn’t have an awful lot left to do but smack the ball into the net.
The Chelsea pressure just kept coming, and things were getting more than a little scrappy in and around the Wigan penalty area. Lampard, Luiz and Oscar all fired shots towards Al Habsi in the following ten minutes, but each went sailing harmlessly into the stands. Phew.
There was enough time for Wigan to counter, should they be able to muster enough to trouble Cech. They were almost level in the half’s final minutes when Maloney’s sublime cross was just taken from James McCarthy’s head at the back post. There were a few rumblings from the resultant corner, but the home side retained their lead as the first half expired.
Much like against Stoke, Wigan re-emerged showing plenty of fight. Franco Di Santo was now proving a bit of a pest for the Chelsea defence, and earned his side a good free kick well into opposition territory. Pleasingly, Wigan did not pass the ball out but chose to get the ball in towards Caldwell and Scharner, leading to a decent head on goal. Not magnificent, but fuel for the ‘stick it in there’ fire.
Maloney fully deserved his strike
The visitors were to suffer another sucker punch, however, when Eden Hazard fired past two defenders to defeat the Wigan keeper by his left foot. Should Al Habsi have got to it? Perhaps, but he did make some magnificent stops a bit later in the game (even if they only mattered for goal difference at that point), so we shall go light on him this week.
Not to be outdone, Latics produced a magnificent passing move of their very own to drag themselves back into the game. Picking up McArthur’s ball on the edge of the area, Maloney drew Cech into a desperate dive for the ball, but it was too late – the ball was already rolling into his goal. A superb finish from such a difficult position, and Wigan were back in the game.
Wigan enjoyed a good spell, both defensively and offensively, for much of what remained of the game. Caldwell and co. were producing heroic tackles and blocks with admirable frequency – indeed it was a high quality Scharner challenge on Lampard that ultimately led to the Wigan goal.
Sadly the visitors could not make that second breakthrough, even with Arouna Kone now joining Di Santo up front. Chelsea conjured up a second wind, which would effectively kill the game off in the 86th minute, when Lampard steered Hazard’s cross past Al Habsi’s right hand and right to the back of the onion bag. Good strike.
The game over as a contest, Wigan attempted to squeeze a goal back but two David Jones shots were easily blocked down. The hosts went up the other end and netted via the head of Marko Marin, but not before a great save from Al Habsi. The Omani would shortly pull off another miraculous stop to prevent the scoreline looking even worse, and Wigan were thankful to lose by just the three goals as Mike Dean blew for full time.
Yet 4-1 is not necessarily a fair reflection of events. Wigan improved for the second half and were still in with a well-worked opportunity of grabbing a point, maybe even three, as the game entered its final five minutes. Things rapidly became desperate, however, and Latics were bound to commit more men forward in search of something from the game, a tactic that cost them in the end. But it is not necessarily the incorrect strategy, far from it – in fact I have nothing more to say but this: “well played, Wigan.”
Actually, no. The final word shall go to the aforementioned Mr Hogan, who so very nearly predicted the correct score this afternoon. 40-1 was a tad extreme, but he clearly mistook football for one of those other sports with a melon-shaped ball.
Image courtesy Simon Q (CC2.0)