• Relief for Rafael Benítez after Chelsea defeat Wigan
• Chelsea now face Sparta Prague in Europa League
César Azpilicueta is still adjusting to the pantomime that life at Chelsea is prone to be but, even now, he has recognised the season to date has been "strange". Every hint of sloppiness had been punished over recent weeks, each spluttering result fuelling suspicions that the interim first-team manager might not even see out his temporary employment. Those fears were allayed for a while by a win over Wigan, although, right on cue, the week ahead brings the Europa League and a step into the unknown.
This term has long since ditched a conventional script. Chelsea should at least travel to Sparta Prague buoyed by a timely victory, their first in five matches, even if they remain a squad yearning for normality. European champions should not find themselves deposited among the second-string, and it is equally unsatisfactory that a domestic challenge now centres solely on finishing in the top four. Throw in the discord in the stands over Rafael Benítez's presence, and the uncertainty over Frank Lampard's future, and the realities are all rather unsettling.
The fact that around 400 fans attempted to gain entry post-match to the launch meeting of the Chelsea Supporters' Trust, a body that hopes to deliver greater dialogue with the club's hierarchy, was a reflection of the anxiety this season has generated. Yet, as inadequate as it all feels, there is a recognition of what must be achieved. "We know we have to stay in the top four for the stability of the club," Azpilicueta said. "We need to go step by step. All the players would prefer to be playing in the Champions League, that is obvious, but we are in the Europa League because we didn't do things right 100% before Christmas.
"We go into this competition focused and wanting to win it and we can take confidence from this. It has been strange for Chelsea [over recent weeks]. We were controlling matches but ended up just making some mistakes, which sometimes you can get away with, and they all led to goals against us. Confidence had dropped a little bit but we have to deal with that."
The right-back, now a full Spain international after playing in last week's win over Uruguay in Doha, was instrumental in ensuring the rot has stopped. His galloping sprints and delivery from the right flank wounded Wigan, and he supplied Eden Hazard with a goal on his return from suspension and Marko Marin with his first for Chelsea. By then the hosts felt comfortable, with Lampard having eased the nerves with his 198th goal for the club. Asked whether the 34-year-old could play at the World Cup in 2014, a roundabout way of seeking out whether he can excel at the top level beyond the expiry of his contract, Benítez said: "Yes. He is a good pro. If he has no injuries, he can still play at a good level."
That issue is likely to drag on until the summer, although for now Benítez can rejoice in some strength in depth from the bench and Victor Moses and Mikel John Obi returning from the Africa Cup of Nations.
The reality is more troubling for Wigan, even if they are used to extricating themselves from precarious positions. Roberto Martínez's side have won only once in 13 Premier League matches and must summon form reminiscent of last season's run-in – when seven games were won from their last nine – if they are to revive. The manager could at least depart heartened that his team had competed, even threatening a recovery from two goals down after Shaun Maloney had pilfered an immediate riposte. But Ashley Cole's handball went unpunished and, with the visitors open to the counter, they were eventually picked apart.
Stuttering form must be checked in their next match, at Reading, if they are to drag others back into the mire, though Wigan must still play all three of the sides directly around them. "It will take a little less than 40 points, but Queens Park Rangers are going to get out of the position they're in and Aston Villa are capable of getting out of it," Martínez said. "But I don't see it as pressure. I see it as a real exciting challenge. The table can be very confusing and does not give you the right message."
Benítez, clinging to Chelsea's placing in third, would presumably disagree.
Man of the match César Azpilicueta (Chelsea).