Frank Lampard strikes again in Chelsea's 4-1 win
LONDON (AP) -Frank Lampard provided another reminder of his enduring value to Chelsea with an influential display and his 12th club goal of the season in a 4-1 victory over Wigan on Saturday that eased the pressure on manager Rafa Benitez.
Chelsea has stayed silent on the failure to offer a contract beyond this season to the 34-year-old Lampard, who is now just four goals behind Bobby Tambling's club record of 202.
But by scoring the crucial third for Chelsea, three days after netting England's match-winner against Brazil, Lampard helped to ensure Chelsea remains a point ahead of Tottenham in third place.
"Lampard is fit and his understanding of the game is fine,'' said Benitez, who won't comment on the player's contract. "He can score goals. If he scores 20 goals and breaks the record, I'll be really pleased.''
Benitez was relieved to see a two-game winless run in the league end by producing the perfect response to Tottenham's 2-1 victory over Newcastle earlier Saturday.
Chelsea went ahead in the first half when Ramires completed a flowing move, and Eden Hazard marked his return from suspension after kicking a ball boy by extending the lead after the break.
Shaun Maloney gave relegation-threatened Wigan brief hope of a comeback by quickly pulling one back, but Lampard's goal came in the 86th minute and substitute Marko Marin scored his first Chelsea goal in stoppage time.
"We left ourselves a bit exposed late on,'' Wigan manager Roberto Martinez said. "The scoreline wasn't a fair reflection, but we wanted a positive result, so I had to stretch and open the game. They took advantage of that on the counterattack.''
Before the late goals, the atmosphere was flat inside a chilly Stamford Bridge.
Benitez has been the target of abusive fan chants since his unpopular appointment in November and, three years to the day after Luiz Felipe Scolari was fired by Chelsea, Benitez's grip on the job has seemed perpetually precarious.
"Nobody is in contact with the owner to find out if he says this or that,'' Benitez said. "It's just speculation. I have to concentrate on winning games.''
But just three wins in their last 10 games before Saturday had seen Chelsea exit the League Cup, forced to play an FA Cup replay next weekend against third-tier opposition, and any league title hopes fade fast.
This win, though, rarely looked in doubt after the early Wigan threat that saw goalkeeper Petr Cech block Franco Di Santo's angled shot with his left leg and keep out Maloney's curled shot with a diving save.
Chelsea managed to find the space to assert itself, with Hazard dragging a shot wide before Torres headed off target and sent a weak shot straight at goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi.
Chelsea's breakthrough in the 23rd after Torres latched onto David Luiz's pass and moved the ball forward to Ramires, who calmly dinked it over Al-Habsi.
Al-Habsi did well, though, to tip over a header from Torres as Chelsea continued to test Wigan with shots.
Lampard flashed wide from distance before setting up Oscar to curl over before the second came in the 56th.
Cesar Azpilicueta brought down Cahill's deep free kick with his chest, cut into the penalty area and squared to Hazard, who swept the ball under Al-Habsi in the 56th.
But the visitors produced a response inside two minutes. James McArthur sent the ball to Maloney on the edge of the penalty area. Cech rushed off his line, but Maloney rounded him before dispatching the ball in the net from a tight angle.
But Wigan couldn't conjure an equalizer before Chelsea's late goals added gloss to the win.
From Hazard's cutback, Lampard blasted in from the edge of the penalty area. In stoppage time, Al-Absi batted away a shot from Azpilicueta, but substitute Marco Marin reacted, sending a low header into the net to score his first goal since joining from Werder Bremen in July.
All that Chelsea was missing was a goal from Torres. The Spain striker was denied his first league goal since Dec. 23 by Al-Habsi's late save.
Wigan occupies the third relegation place, provisionally ahead of Aston Villa on goal difference and four in front of bottom-place Queens Park Rangers.
"It's a real concern,'' Martinez said. "It's the last third of the competition where everything happens. We need to get everyone back from injury and to be perfect.''