Petr Cech took the blame for Wigan Athletic's equaliser just as he had taken the ball – partially. As he stood to accept criticism, with head-guard removed, facial scars on display and a patience few in his position would possess, the Chelsea goalkeeper must privately have been asking one pertinent question of his own. "What about everyone else?"
What about everyone else indeed. The 29-year-old is too consummate a professional to have distributed fault for a damaging draw throughout the ranks, too wise to the headlines that would inevitably follow. But Cech could have pointed to the lax defending from Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Ashley Cole that preceded his mistake and the 88th-minute goal from Jordi Gómez that earned Wigan a deserved point and stalled Chelsea's momentum just as it was gathering nicely. He could also have pointed to a complacent start from a team fresh from victory against Manchester City, to a painful lack of creativity and to the tactical and personnel changes by the manager, André Villas-Boas, that contributed to a subdued performance from a team with the scent of the title race supposedly returned. Instead, he took a qualified rap.
"When the shot came through, there were players coming across the flight of the ball and one of the other players – I think it was Ash or somebody – the ball just went through him somehow. There was a split second where I could not see the ball and then it was too late," Cech said. "I tried to catch the ball but it was too late and it deflected. The feeling I have from the pitch is that this is not a goal I can be proud of but, in a way, it is hard to see what I could have done differently."
But for the late collective lapse, this may have been portrayed as another of those hard-fought, grinding away wins on which Chelsea have founded title campaigns. That would have been another error. The visitors were comfortably contained by Roberto Martínez's plan to play, in effect, a five-man defence until Daniel Sturridge, paid the compliment of a man-marker in David Jones, lost his man and converted Cole's fine pass with a sublime touch and finish beyond Ali al-Habsi.
That apart, Chelsea were pedestrian and unimaginative in attack. Without the injured Ramires, there was no drive or threat from midfield. Villas-Boas admitted that with the introduction of Mikel John Obi seven minutes after the goal, that he was playing for the 1-0, having withdrawn a defensive midfielder in Oriol Romeu at half-time in the search for greater ingenuity. If that had an element of José Mourinho about it, the defensive uncertainty when Wigan rallied – fear, the television pundits called it – certainly did not.
Villas-Boas said: "We have to take it as criticism. It was a fair result because we didn't push really hard to get the result. We leave dissatisfied with the result but that is the nature of the Premier League. Sometimes you stumble when you least expect it."
Criticism of the Chelsea performance must be balanced with credit for the quality of Wigan's. For a team that has improved recently yet still finds itself languishing in the relegation zone, and had folded once Arsenal took the lead in its last home fixture, the refusal to accept defeat and to adhere to Martínez's instructions were outstanding. The flow of the game was illustrated by the fact that, once it was over, the manager in a relegation scrap and not in the Champions League was bemoaning the shortage of stoppage‑time.
Martínez, who also had cause to rue Martin Atkinson's refusal to award a penalty for a handball by Ivanovic before his substitutes – Franco Di Santo and Hugo Rodallega – combined for Gómez's equaliser, said: "We have to concede goals because we're going to be playing expansive football and we're going to make mistakes. You've got to have that threat and if you're going to do that you need to be better than the opposition. Looking at the stats, we had more possession, more corners and more attempts and there were big calls when you could argue with the referee. But that really pleases me because I felt that the players were outstanding tactically. We forced them to think too much because we played Chelsea with a real understanding of their threat and they were superb. The result wasn't an accident."