Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester United 0: Brilliant Latics finally get their reward

An inspirational Wigan Athletic performance characterized by confidence, style and determination earned the club its first ever win against Manchester United last night. Roberto’s men were thoroughly dominant until taking the lead, and resolute in their defense of it. United were limited to one shot on target and three corners, something I doubt any other club has managed this season.

It is hard to recall a prouder moment. This sort of form has been building for some time now. We deserved points at Stamford Bridge last weekend, and have now suffered from three unfairly disallowed goals in two matches. But there is real belief in this squad, from back to front. Indeed, before the famous wins of late we had outplayed Norwich, West Brom, Aston Villa and Everton without burying them. It is amazing what a bit of confidence does for you — goals are suddenly popping up from all sorts of places, from the center of defense, to super-subs, to the excellent and invigorated Shaun Maloney.

Roberto Martinez’s vision appears to be finally coming together. His team has shed the defensive fragility that cost us in the first half of the season with his three-man centre of defense. The Alcaraz-Caldwell-Figueroa axis gets stronger every match and has wonderful balance. His deployment of Emmerson Boyce as the right wingback — a decision questioned by some of us due to Ronnie Stam’s excellent mid-season form — has allowed him to seamlessly switch to a 4-5-1 when the team needs to re-gain possession or push forward in numbers. Jean Beausejour must go down in history as our best ever January transfer window signing, making a huge contribution in a problem position. Shaun Maloney has injected verve and direct, attacking play in his advanced midfield role.  The squad is strong, with replacements for just about everyone in the squad.

Wigan started this match with clear attacking intent. James McCarthy had a left-footed rocket tipped over the bar by De Gea; the lively Victor Moses zigzagged into the box only to smash his curled effort off Rio Ferdinand’s behind; James McArthur was first to every ball, while Antolin Alcaraz enjoyed a remarkable attacking performance with frequent surging runs. United threatened only twice; first through Chicharito Hernandez, who failed to sneak past Gary Caldwell, and later through Ryan Giggs, whose outside-of-the-boot cross was deflected for a corner by Maynor Figueroa. But the first half was really all Wigan, and pressure finally told when Victor Moses rose to head a Shaun Maloney cross into the back of the net. Celebrations ensued, with Phil Dowd appearing to give the goal, only for the linesman to call the goal back moments later. Latics had been denied a goal once again — the third in less than 90 minutes — by a linesman. This time, Gary Caldwell was adjudged to have impeded David De Gea’s path to the ball. Replays showed the Wigan man did nothing but stand his ground, and was in fact shoved toward De Gea by a United player. Martinez was furious, and Dowd’s reception by the crowd at half-time was not one he’ll have savoured.

Tom Cleverley was brought on in an attempt to regain possession, but Wigan started the second half as they ended the first. Jean Beausejour was busy down the left and his slightly clumsy attempt to get a cross past Johnny Evans while falling over was incorrectly given a corner. With the linesman on the other side of the pitch it was certainly a tough one for the referee — only one or two of the five or six camera angles in slow motion replay made it clear the ball had indeed bundled off Beausejour’s leg. But there was no question about what ensued. Shaun Maloney received a short pass, dummied past Rooney and sensationally curled the ball past De Gea to give his team the lead. This time the flags stayed down, and Latics celebrated.

The rest of the match was largely an exercise in patient, organized defending. That Wigan only picked up one yellow card — Di Santo for dissent after himself being fouled — is truly remarkable. There was no lunging, no diving in. There were tense moments, but the team was organized and never looked like falling apart. United had one or two half-chances, with Danny Wellbeck breaking but forced to shoot from a wide angle, and Nani causing a bit of panic with quick footwork and a low cross. But if anything, Latics had clearer chances to increase their lead than United did to equalise. Conor Sammon, on for Maloney, went on a fantastic run down the left wing and into the box, laying off neatly for Diame, who had an effort blocked before squaring to Moses, whose shot deflected wide. The Nigeria international was a constant threat with his strength and running.

It took five minutes of injury time, but the final whistle went and Wigan supporters from the DW to Jakarta and Boston jumped up and down to the tune of “We-Are-Staying-Up-WE-ARE-STAYING-UP!”

The Good:

Everything from the quality of football played, to the confidence it was played with, the effort and desire. The pride for the shirt. The support.

The Bad:

Nothing except the understandable signs of fatigue after two outstanding performances against the two most successful British teams of recent times.

Refereeing Decisions:

Lets get the facts straight amid media coverage of Fergie’s complaints. There were two controversial decisions each way. We had a goal disallowed incorrectly, and Johnny Evans should have been sent off for a second yellow card offense. They should have had a goal-kick instead of a corner, and did not get a penalty when a driven ball deflected off the sliding Maynor Figueroa’s leg, onto his arm. What would you rather have — 1-0 against 10 men? Or a goal-kick and a penalty?

Not Over Yet:

This was an unforgettable football match for all associated with the club, and we’re all buzzing with pride. But the relegation battle is tight. QPR beat Swansea and remain above us on goal difference. Bolton are two behind but have a game in hand. Blackburn are only three adrift. Save the Carling Cup memories of our first season, Arsenal away is typically a nightmare fixture for us, and could be a wake-up call. Specially with tired legs from last night’s exertions. Newcastle’s form is unbelievable, and Fulham have real quality this season. So there is a long road ahead. McArthur and Martinez himself came out with appropriate “Lets keep our feet on the ground” quotes this morning. Lets hope we can do it. If this level of performance can be sustained for five more matches, it will be an enjoyable month and a half — but it’s a big ask.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Only had to make one save, but it was an important one from a low Danny Wellbeck shot.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Outstanding in defense, but also got forward to good effect in the first half. Looked as comfortable on that ball as anyone.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — The captain is becoming a fan favorite. Clean sheet against Man United.

Maynor Figueroa: 9 — Fantastic from the Honduran. Took a few knocks. Has really thrived in the left-centre-half role.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Didn’t get forward as much as Beausejour, but kept Ashley Young out of the game.

Jean Beausejour: 8.5 — Caused trouble down the left in the first half, defended strongly in the second. Kept Valencia relatively quiet.

James McArthur: 9 — It’s amazing how much ground this fella covers. First to every ball. Sets an example.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Neat in possession, a good left-footed strike. Pace and power in midfield.

Shaun Maloney: 9 — Brilliant. Troubled United all game with his stepovers and flicks. In the same position, Jordi would pass the ball sideways far too often. Maloney is direct, positive, confident. What a finish.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Deserved a goal for his hard work. Ran his socks off with good skill, though lacked a cool head with the final shot on occasion.

Franco Di Santo: 8 — His work ethic and target man play are simply fantastic. If only we could all chip in and buy him a goal.

The Twelfth Man: 10 — The supporters are behind the team more than ever, and it shows. From those who have been gathering at the stadium hours early to greet the team as they arrive, to the Washington DC supporters club at Lucky Bar, and my amazing wife (chair of the Figueroa Fan Club) who has to try and watch these matches as her maniacal husband shouts, drools, laughs and cries his way through them. Lets enjoy this moment and keep it up for the remaining five fixtures.

Subs:

Mo Diame: 7 — Brought on for the tiring Franco Di Santo, who had also taken a few knocks, to help regain possession. Took about 10 minutes to get into the game, such was the pace of it. Unlucky to have his shot blocked, did some good tackling.

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance by the big man, putting in the miles but also showing some skill on a mazy run that might have ended in a second (or third) goal.

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