Frank Lampard’s added-time winner ensured manager Guus Hiddink marked his first home league game with a victory and lifted Chelsea above Liverpool into second spot in the Premier League.
Hiddink had steered his new side to victories over Aston Villa and Juventus since succeeding Luiz Felipe Scolari on a temporary basis, but his winning run appeared set to end when Olivier Kapo’s 81st minute effort cancelled out John Terry’s 25th minute opening goal.
But as so often during a troubled season, it was Lampard who came to his side’s rescue, heading home from close range in the 91st minute to move Chelsea to within seven points of leaders Manchester United and maintain their slender hopes in the title race.
Hiddink had criticised his new players after the midweek Champions League victory over Juventus, accusing them of sitting too deep and failing to capitalise on Didier Drogba’s first half goal.
And it appeared as though his words had fallen on deaf ears as Steve Bruce’s visiting side fought back in a bid to press their own hopes of qualifying for a place in next season’s UEFA Cup.
But Hiddink’s impact at Stamford Bridge has already been felt and a third successive win under the new manager strengthened belief that there is much more to come from the London club during the final weeks of the campaign.
It had looked very different during the opening 20 minutes when Wigan dominated and they should have gone ahead in the 18th minute when Paul Scharner blew a one-on-one chance with Petr Cech.
Wigan had been growing in confidence and Scharner’s near miss appeared to reinforce their belief that Chelsea were vulnerable.
And three minutes later they again exposed the defensive fragility that became a feature of their play this season under Hiddink’s predecessor Scolari.
The Brazilian manager was heavily criticised for his inability to resolve Chelsea’s problems defending set-pieces.
And there was stark evidence that the problem persists under Hiddink when Titus Bramble was allowed to rise unchallenged and head Charles N’Zogbia’s corner past Cech, only for England full-back Ashley Cole to clear off the line.
Maynor Figueroa pounced on the rebound but that too was hacked away, first by Cech and then by Terry and Wigan’s best chance of the opening stages was gone.
The scare appeared to shake Chelsea into life and they responded with purpose, quickly taking the lead and then going on to dominate the remainder of the first half.
Kirkland was forced to react quickly to keep out a powerful drive from John Mikel Obi but the keeper had no chance when Terry’s 25th minute volley was deflected past him by defender Emmerson Boyce, whose underpowered clearance had presented the Chelsea captain with his chance.
Immediately, Chelsea went looking for a second and Kirkland and his defenders were forced into a series of desperate saves and blocks to prevent the home side taking complete control of the game.
Titus Bramble cleared off the line from Michael Ballack after Lampard had blown a great chance, and then repeated the feat after the break, this time to deny Didier Drogba.
But with Wigan having weakened as an attacking force – and with the Stamford Bridge crowd reacting euphorically to news that Middlesbrough had taken a two-goal lead against Liverpool – there was a growing sense that Chelsea would not be denied victory.
However, with only Terry’s goal separating the two sides, there was always the chance Wigan could get back into it, especially when Hugo Rodallega was introduced to give Amr Zaki much needed support up front.
Drogba and Anelka both spurned chances to claim the second but as time progressed, Chelsea were again guilty of sitting back in their attempt to defend a lead.
And they paid the price when Kapo got ahead of Nicolas Anelka and met Figueroa’s expertly delivered low cross at the near post to side-foot the ball past Cech from six yards out.
There was always likely to be one more chance for the home side, however, and when it came Lampard responded coolly to claim the points.