Premier League – Heskey spears Blues’ title dream
Emile Heskey‘s injury-time equaliser cancelled out Michael Essien‘s second-half opener and put a huge dent in Chelsea‘s title ambitions as Avram Grant’s side were held to a 1-1 draw by Wigan at Stamford Bridge.
The result leaves Manchester United five points clear in the title race with just four games remaining, and they could now claim the title with victory at Chelsea on April 26.
Wigan, meanwhile, are now six points clear of the relegation zone and can begin to look forward to life in the top-flight again next season.
The home side endured a frustrating first half in which they struggled to breach Wigan’s determined back line, prompting jeers from the home fans as they left the field at half-time.
The introduction of Joe Cole considerably enlivened their forward play, and within 10 minutes of the second period Essien put them ahead from the edge of the area.
Chelsea thought they had escaped with the points when returning goalkeeper Petr Cech produced a fine save to deny Wigan substitute Antoine Sibierski with two minutes remaining, but Heskey’s sliding back-post volley hauled Wigan level and handed United a potentially decisive advantage.
Chelsea went into the game boosted by the presence in goal of Cech – wearing a chin-strap to go with his now familiar skull-cap – after the facial injury he sustained in training last week had threatened to rule him out.
Avram Grant made seven changes to the side that beat Fenerbahce 2-0 in the Champions League last week, with Cech, Juliano Belletti, Alex, Wayne Bridge, John Mikel Obi, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka all coming into the side. Frank Lampard was a late withdrawal from the team through illness.
Anelka should have given the home side the lead after five minutes when he headed Salomon Kalou‘s centre wide from six yards, but Chelsea struggled to find their rhythm in the game’s early stages and Antonio Valencia tested Cech with a stinging drive from the edge of the box during a spell of Wigan pressure midway through the first half.
Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland was not tested until just before the half-hour mark, but when called upon he produced a tremendous save to tip Anelka’s goalbound looping header over the crossbar.
Chelsea were enjoying plenty of possession but without any discernible end product, although Josip Skoko was forced to clear off the Wigan goal-line when Kalou’s header bounced past Kirkland from Belletti’s right-wing corner.
A succession of rather aimless Chelsea attacks were comfortably repelled by Lactics centre-half Paul Scharner, and when the half-time whistle sounded it drew a chorus of boos from the frustrated home fans.
Grant responded by introducing Cole in place of the disappointing Malouda, and the England man immediately added some much-needed guile and invention to the home side’s attacking play.
Suddenly there was cut and dash to Chelsea’s forward forays, and within a minute John Terry had rattled the crossbar with a flying volley and Kirkland had produced a superb point blank save to deny Kalou.
But the men in blue were not to be denied, and moments later they took the lead when Essien’s effort from the edge of the box flew past Kirkland via a slight deflection off Emmerson Boyce.
Chelsea looked on course for a fairly comfortable victory but were given a scare with two minutes remaining when Sibierski’s well-struck half-volley from Marlon King‘s knockdown was parried by Cech.
Visiting manager Steve Bruce had his head in his hands as that chance went begging, but the man who captained Manchester United to their first ever Premier League title in 1993 was soon on his feet as Heskey thumped home Jason Koumas‘s measured left-wing centre to tip the balance of power in the title race firmly in United’s favour.
Tom Williams / Eurosport