As Latics supporters, we’re used to being written off before a ball is kicked. Wigan will finally go down this year, we’re told every year. Yet somehow this fantastic little club clings to its Premier League status again and again — we’ve become survival specialists. It was no mean feat under Paul Jewell, an enthusiasm-fueled season like Norwich are enjoying at the moment. Or under Steve Bruce, when he totally revived a team of strugglers and misfits. But in the Martinez era, it has been achieved on half the budget, allowing the club to allocate funds toward youth development and long-term sustainability.
Indeed the worst case scenario, that of relegation, is a lot less worrying than it was three years ago. The squad is deep and young, with few big name players on heavy wage packets. Latics would probably lose three or four quality players — Rodallega, Diame, Moses, and perhaps James McCarthy — but would still have a very competent side capable of winning the Championship. As evidence, Callum McManaman, who can’t buy playing time with the current squad, starred during his loan stint at Blackpool, who are 4th in said league. Nouha Dicko, yet to feature for the first team at Wigan, scored on his debut for the Seasiders several days ago. Jordi Gomez was far and away voted the best player in the Championship last time he played in it.
All this said, incredibly — despite a cruel fixture list featuring the newly promoted teams in days 1, 2 and 3; a stretch of back-to-back games over Christmas against big four opposition; an 8-match losing steak; a (separate) 9-match winless streak — we’re not down yet.
In fact, we’ve hung in there just long enough that opportunity knocks, and real optimism is brewing. It’s tighter this year than last, when more teams got sucked into the battle. But this year it will take less points. We are essentially in a five-team relegation mini-league at the bottom of the table, cut adrift from the other 15 not only by 7 points but a gulf in quality. Aston Villa will not get relegated despite Alex McLeish’s best efforts, nor will Fulham, Stoke or West Brom. Three of them have too much quality, and the other has Roy Hodgson. The best bet for anyone else joining the party appeared to be a collapse in form from one of the newly promoted sides, but Swansea’s strength at home should keep them safe, while Norwich are already only about two wins away from safety.
So we’re looking at a mini-league between QPR, Blackburn, Wolves, Bolton and ourselves, with the top two surviving.
Bolton were poor last Saturday, with no imagination going forward and a leaky defense that Victor Moses ran rings around. The loss of Gary Cahill only makes things worse for them. The decline of Kevin Davies, coupled with the departure of Johan Elmander, has stripped them of firepower.
Wolves have been looking pretty poor too, but are likely to benefit from the galvanizing effect a new manager, after Mick McCarthy was sacked. Potential replacement Alan Curbishley has been out of the game for a while but is a decent manager, Steve Bruce has rescued teams before and Wolves’ squad would certainly suit his style.
QPR, I suspect, will win the mini-league. They bought proven quality, and Mark Hughes is a good manager. It’s hard to see a team featuring experienced players like Sean Wright-Phillips, Bobby Zamora, Joey Barton, Luke Young, Djibril Cisse going down. Look at their squad. That said, they play the top six in their last 13 matches, so there is little margin for error.
Blackburn are a bizarre bunch. Steve Kean is out of his depth, but has somehow turned an ageing, injury-prone Everton striker into a goal machine, something Harry Redknapp also gambled on with immediate success at White Hart Lane with Louis Saha. Take away Yak or Pedersen, however, and Blackburn are in trouble. Hard to predict. The away fixture at Ewood Park looms large.
A Favorable Fixture List:
Of the 13 matches left, only four are games we probably can’t win — Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal away, and Man United at home. Any points here would be a huge bonus. Of the remaining eight fixtures, six are at home against teams we are good enough to beat: Aston Villa, Swansea, West Brom, Stoke, Newcastle, Wolves. Leaving just Norwich, Fulham and Blackburn away, tough matches but in the scheme of things not that daunting. The normal 40 point target looks difficult to achieve, but everyone’s point total in the bottom five is so low that I doubt any more than 35 will be necessary.
Villa (H), Swansea (H), Norwich (A), WBA (H), Liverpool (A), Stoke (H), Chelsea (A), Man Utd (H), Arsenal (A), Fulham (A), Newcastle (H), Blackburn (A), Wolves (H)
* Wigan and QPR play 7 home games; Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves only play 6 more at home.
* Wigan have by far the most favourable crucial last game of the season: Chelsea – Blackburn, Wigan – Wolves, Stoke – Bolton, Man City – QPR
* Assuming the following big six: Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool — QPR has the worst fixtures, facing them all. Wolves and Blackburn play five of them. Wigan faces four of them, Bolton only face three.
A Fit Squad, Raring to Go:
Martinez spoke last season of the importance of youth and fitness in the season run-in. Having struggled with injuries in the first half of the season, it appears the squad is fit and ready for the run-in. Key players such as Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Hugo Rodallega all missed significant time earlier in the season but are now in the clear. Shaun Maloney recently completed 90 minutes for the reserves and was quoted as saying he is ready to push for a place in the first team. Competition in midfield is outstanding, with James McArthur staking his claim but Mo Diame returning from the African Cup of Nations, and Ben Watson — untouchable in the lineup this time last year — on the fringes. The bench against Bolton including Ronnie Stam, Albert Crusat, Mo Diame, Ben Watson, Dave Jones and Hugo Rodallega must rank as the strongest in the club’s history, and people like Shaun Maloney, Hendry Thomas, Conor Sammon, Callum McManaman didn’t even dress. The only truly irreplaceable player is Ali Al-Habsi.
Few people expected us to be within 2 points of 16th place at this stage of the season given the horrific form before Christmas and fixtures that followed. There is still a lot wrong with the team, in particular in front of goal. But with a bit of luck in the injury and suspensions department, continued improvement from Victor Moses’ final ball, and favourable results elsewhere, we might just live the dream once again. Here’s hoping…
Blind optimist? Spot on? Leave a comment.