It's been a while since we had a nice, relaxing win... and I guess it'll continue to have been a while. Because while Chelsea beat Wigan Athletic 4-1 at Stamford Bridge, it wasn't exactly a stroll in the park. Late goals from Frank Lampard and Marko Marin put some gloss on the scoreline, but the match wasn't close to comfortable until the 86th minute.
We've been used to stodgy, slow play of late, and that's exactly how the match -- a must-win after Tottenham Hotspur's victory against Newcastle in the early game -- began. Happily, we saw Eden Hazard return to action following his three-game ban for almost nearly murdering a toddler, and Rafa Benitez also saw David Luiz return to the fold after missing three games due to injury. Less happily, Juan Mata was barred from starting the match thanks to a virus*.
*I'm choosing to interpret this as 'a hangover' because I really want to imagine Juan Mata utterly tanked.
Wigan were getting most of the ball and much of the penetration, but although Petr Cech (and his broken finger) faced plenty of shots early on the likes of Franco di Santo and Shaun Maloney didn't look like they had the firepower to overly trouble the centre back pairing of Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill.
That said, for the opening twenty minutes Chelsea weren't doing much in the way of anything. Eden Hazard looked dangerous without being able to get past Ronnie Stam, Oscar was happier as a number ten but was failing to pick out any particularly incisive passes and Fernando Torres's industry was rather wasted by his finishing.
The stodginess evaporated in the 23rd minute. Superb work in the centre circle by David Luiz saw the Brazilian glide past Roger Espinoza and shuttle the ball up the pitch for Torres. With Ramires breaking at speed down the right wing, the striker made the right devision and put him in with a measured pass. Two touches later, Ramires' shot found the back over the net, with Ali Al-Habsi taken out of the picture with a deft chipped finish.
That goal inspired more attacking from Chelsea. The impressive Cesar Azpilicueta went marauding forward at will, and one of his crosses was very nearly turned into the net by Torres, whose excellent header drew a fine flying stop from Al-Habsi. The Blues were very much on top by this point, and although Wigan got half-chances there didn't seem to be much to worry about.
The lead was doubled ten minutes after halftime. It wasn't quite route one football, but Cahill's free kick from deep inside his own half found Azpilicueta unmarked on the flank. Instead of crossing, he drove into the area, picking out Hazard on the penalty box for a first time finish to make it 2-0.
That scoreline would last for two minutes. Maloney had been fairly well marshalled for most of the match, but his angled run caught out both centre backs and left Chelsea wide open to a through pass from James McArthur. Maloney picked up possession near the corner of the box, rounded Cech and clipped in, his shot evading a mis-timed block from Cahill in the process. 2-1.
With Chelsea making an exceptionally annoying habit of throwing away leads recently, things got exceptionally tense around the Bridge after that. The mood very nearly got worse when Stam's attempted shot hit -- from all of a yard -- the outstretched arm of Ashley Cole, but with all eyes on Dean, the referee (perhaps generously) waved play on.
Juan Mata was deployed for Oscar in a move better suited to chasing a deficit rather than holding a lead, but the Spaniard was involved in the third goal, dummying an 85th minute Hazard cutback for Lampard to place in the bottom corner from the top of the box. The goal, Lampard's 198th in Chelsea colours, cemented the win after a worrying 25 minutes, and from then on the Blues could relax.
In fact, they were so relaxed that something very strange happened. Azpilicueta, who'd had an extraordinary match out on the right, decided that he wanted in on the fun and tested Al-Habsi with a long-range belter. It took a majestic save to stop it going in outright, but the rebound went straight to Marko Marin, who'd been on the pitch for all of a minute before being presented with his first ever Chelsea goal on a nice shiny plate.
Since the ball was about ankle-height for normally footballers, the little German scored with his head. Which was exactly as weird as it sounds. Ramires nearly set up Torres in similar fashion, but the striker's shot was too close to Al-Habsi, who picked himself up to parry the effort just wide of the post.
And that was that. In all probability, had it not been for Chelsea's poor recent form, the match would never have felt in doubt, even when Wigan pulled a goal back. If we keep getting results like this, maybe I'll stop dreading watching us play. That'd be nice. For now, however, I'll take third place.