Perhaps we Latics fans were getting a little over-confident. A couple of encouraging performances at Southampton and Nottingham Forest over the past week, plus a great record against Stoke in the Premier League. Did we really think it was going to be easy to beat Stoke? It proved not to be. Despite going behind twice the visitors showed a fighting spirit and deserved their point in an entertaining game.
Latics went ahead after only 5 minutes, a shot from James McCarthy hitting Robert Huth’s hand and the referee, Martin Atkinson, giving a penalty. Up stepped Shaun Maloney who dispatched it calmly and accurately, sending Begovic the wrong way. After 15 minutes Di Santo appealed for a penalty after being sandwiched between two Stoke defenders , but not given. Latics were playing attractive football, but Stoke still looked lively.
Wigan had a blow on 28 minutes when Jean Beausejour went off injured, David Jones coming on in his place. This and the introduction of the skilful, if abrasive, Charlie Adam for Stoke soon afterwards changed the flow of the game. Adam had come on to replace the combative Andy Wilkinson. Cameron had a good effort go narrowly wide, then a wicked free kick from Adam caused mayhem in Latics’ defence until it was cleared. Stoke were to get back in the game after 4o minutes when the ball hit Maynor Figueroa’s hand and Walters scored from the resulting penalty. Wilson’s volley was then pushed on to the bar by Al Habsi. 1-1 at half time.
Latics started the second half well as Arouna Kone broke away in the 49th minute, being chased by Stoke defenders. He held the ball up before unselfishly putting in a neat pass to Franco Di Santo, who scored with the panache of a natural goalscorer. Stoke then really started to control the midfield and put latics under a lot of pressure. They play a little more football than they used to – no more rocket throws from Rory Delap – some neat midfield play these days. However, the end result is still a lobbed ball aimed at Crouch or one of their other many corpulant players.
Despite the lack of sophistication to their approach Stoke did have several half chances before Crouch got his goal in the 76th minute after outjumping Figueroa to a pretty good lob from Walters. Al Habsi was to produce two great saves, one to deny Cameron Jerome, another to somehow get his fingertips to a free kick from Adam that had taken a wicked deflection off Gary Caldwell.
At the other end the substitute Ryo Miyaichi was subject to a debatable slide tackle in the box from another abrasive Stoke player, Ryan Shawcross. In many countries such tackles would be penalized. In this case, the referee decided it was fair.
In the end, honours even.
Franco Di Santo is clearly coming of age. Martinez has stuck by him and his belief in the young Argentine is paying off. Di Santo proved himself to be a top class central striker last season in terms of his foraging and hold-up play, scoring some spectacular goals along the way. However, there were times when one doubted he had the finishing power that he has shown in the past two Premier League games. His goal at Southampton was finished with aplomb and he made this one look easy.
It was a pleasure to see Di santo and Kone operating as twin strikers, something new in the Martinez era. The tactical adjustment needed following the departure of Victor Moses is looking good. There remains the possibility of a wide player replacing one of the two big central strikers to provide variation.
The midfield lost its way in this match. The two Jimmy Macs have been fantastic for so many matches over the past months. This time around they were not at their best. The admirable James McArthur is still not physically at his peak, following injury. He went off after 76 minutes to be replaced by Ben Watson. Latics had already lost the central midfield battle by then. James McCarthy was relatively subdued in this match, but it is hard to criticize a player who week in, week out gives his all for the team.
The loss of Beausejour halfway through the first half disrupted Latics’ rhythm. He is a key player in the system they play. David Jones tried hard but the Chilean was missed.
Ali Al Habsi: 9 – without his superb goalkeeping Stoke would have won.
Ivan Ramis: 7 – looking increasingly comfortable in the Premier League. Strong in the tackle, with excellent distribution.
Gary Caldwell: 8 – played a captain’s role in holding the defence together during Stoke’s second half onslaught..
Maynor Figueroa: 6 – the tenacious Honduran could not quite keep up his outstanding recent form.The penalty decision against him, was a little unlucky, although last season luck tended to favour him in similar sitiuations.
Emmerson Boyce: 7 –solid in defence, supportive in attack.
Jean Beausejour – went off injured in first half.
James McCarthy: 6 – unusually subdued. Howev er, it must be difficult to maintain his intensity of play, match after match.
James McArthur: 6 – worked hard as always. Put some nice passes through. Has become a key player.
Shaun Maloney: 7 – took the penalty with authority. Worked hard.
Franco Di Santo: 8 – an excellent all round performance. Worked very hard, taking his goal really well.
Arouna Kone: 7.5 – a hardworking performance, showing commitment and good technique.
David Jones: 5 – after after a solid performance in central midfield at Nottingham during the week he looked uncomfortable at wing back.
Ben Watson – came on after 76 minutes for James McArthur, but failed to put his stamp on the game. A lack of regular first team football may be the root cause.
Ryo Miyaichi – came on for the last 1o minutes. The Stoke defence did n0t allow him the time and space to make use of his electrifying speed. More to come from this potential match winner.