Relegation takes centre stage as United clinch title

2013-villa

As Manchester United players confirmed the club’s 20th league title with a 3-0 triumph over Aston Villa on Monday night and five games still to play, the race at the other end of the table was thrust into the limelight.

For United followers, who were 3-0 up after a mere half an hour, another goal or two might have been icing on the cake. For Wigan supporters, each of Robin Van Persie’s strikes was celebrated as though Emmerson Boyce had donned a red shirt and scored it himself.

If the result mathematically confirmed the title race, then it also brought clarity to its relegation equivalent. While Champions League places are still up for grabs, the battle of the underdogs has always been a fantastic spectacle at the end of each Premier League season — as of today, surely the biggest question left is “will it be Wigan or will it be Villa?”

The triple whammy of a crushing defeat at West Ham and victories for Sunderland and Stoke in tricky fixtures meant Wigan needed things to go to script today if they were to keep themselves within a win of leapfrogging Villa into safety. While it is possible that Stoke, Newcastle, or Sunderland could be hauled back into the fight, their six point advantage plus superior goal difference means it would take a major collapse. In all likelihood, they each need just one more win.

The fixture list has drawn up a remarkable finale. As things stand, Villa are three points ahead, but Wigan have a game in hand and a four-goal advantage. If theoretically, this gap were to remain the same until the last match of the season, a win for Wigan against Villa at the DW would secure safety for the club. Of course, there are five and four league matches for each club respectively between now and that epic scenario. Here’s a quick look at the run-in:

April 27: Wigan vs. Spurs

April 29: Aston Villa vs. Sunderland

May 4: Norwich vs. Aston Villa, West Brom vs. Wigan

May 7: Wigan vs. Swansea

[May 11: Wigan vs. Man City -- Cup Final]

May 12: Aston Villa vs. Chelsea

May 14: Arsenal vs. Wigan

May 19: Wigan vs. Aston Villa

On first glance, survival certainly looks achievable. Villa face a resurgent Sunderland side that has kept clean sheets in its last two matches against tricky opposition. They then travel to Norwich, where few teams win but plenty draw, and face Chelsea at home before the showdown with Latics. While they would have been licking their lips at the prospect of Sunderland at home two weeks ago, that outcome is anyone’s guess now. Likewise Norwich, who will be eager to end their involvement in that bottom pack. Meanwhile, Chelsea are fighting to remain in the top four and the riches of the Champions League, a year after winning it.

Wigan, meanwhile, may struggle with fixture congestion and the injuries it brings. Tottenham arrive at a tough time with their confidence high after a remarkable win against Manchester City and key players returning to fitness such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. But at least Roberto Martinez’s charges will have enjoyed a full week of rest by the time they play, after three games last week. Then come the two key fixtures, fast and furious ahead of the FA Cup final. West Brom away is by no means an easy fixture, but with Steve Clarke’s side safe in mid-table it presents an opportunity. Same with Swansea, at home. The trip to Arsenal is unlikely to yield points, particularly if the Champions League qualification battle remains tight.

Neither club is in an enviable position, but in a league whose victor has been known for some time, the contest between Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa at the other end is as tight as they come.

Aston Villa – Wigan Athletic: a broken-spirit clasico

If Latics were facing Aston Villa at home tomorrow I’d be writing about the kind of result that could turn the club’s season around. Instead, Martinez’s men travel to Villa Park for one of the more unpredictable fixtures of the season.

After an encouraging run of form including a convincing away win at Anfield, Paul Lambert’s men have now conceded 12 goals in the last two matches. Chelsea and Spurs — their victors — are coincidentally also responsible for Wigan’s heaviest Premier League defeats in Roberto’s early days at the club. Villa’s young team’s capitulation bore many similarities to that of Wigan’s in those drubbings — inexperience and lack of tactical cohesion. A team at the beginning of a new cycle.

So whose morale is more firmly rooted in the gutter?

While Wigan’s results of late have been poor, all losses have been close, and recent ones tinged with the injustice of penalty decisions going the wrong way. It was no coincidence that the bottom three all suffered from harsh treatment from referees this weekend (Reading conceded a last-minute goal in which Gareth Barry had fouled his defender; QPR’s Robert Green did not receive protection from the officials when conceding their second goal). When you’re down there, things don’t seem to go your way. But the performance level against Arsenal and Everton was good, and players are starting to return from injury. Gary Caldwell got better as the game went along on mid-week, and Ivan Ramis was on the bench suggesting he is near full fitness. All things points to improvement.

The question, of course, is which Villa will turn up?

Prediction: Latics finally get something from the match officials.

Aston Villa 2 Wigan Athletic 0: Punchless Latics suffer fifth consecutive defeat

Several weeks ago, I used a match preview to illustrate the comical gulf in financial resources between Latics and the rival of the day, Manchester City. I labeled that game a no-hoper, and the match obliged. As supporters, we were unhappy with the performance, but very few of us expected any other result. There are a growing number of teams like Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, that we just can’t compete with.

But if you polled most Wigan Athletic supporters, few would list Aston Villa in that category. Sure, they are a big club with good support and some financial backing. But they’ve been, over the years, the type of team we can beat, and indeed try to.

The daft thing about all of this is that Aston Villa are, albeit to a lesser extent, still light years ahead of Wigan in terms of spending and wages. This summer, they bought our best player, Charles N’Zogbia, and proceeded to leave him on the bench, where another of our former best players, Emile Heskey, would keep him company. Key players for us are not key players for them. (Although I do think N’Zogbia will probably go on to become a key player there eventually).

Are we expecting too much from — to put it bluntly — a poor team in the world’s richest league? At risk of sounding bonkers after the elaborate preface I’ve just given, I don’t think we are.

Because Wigan Athletic has always punched above its weight. We expect our boys to upset the odds, and they do year after year. It’s the club ethos. The fact that Latics had not lost away at Villa before Saturday was an astounding statistic given the above realities. So as I launch into this match analysis, keep in mind two things. First, as a supporter I’m very proud of what the club has achieved and continues to achieve against clubs with greater resources. But second, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing better than we are.

Match Highlights

Latics actually started this one brightly, with plenty of possession and some attacking intent, without actually creating any clear chances. Roberto opted for a similar lineup to that of the second half against Tottenham, with Emmerson Boyce returning at right-back, Figueroa partnering Caldwell in the middle, and Van Aanholt out left. Ronnie Stam lined up as what can only be described as a defensive winger on the right, with Victor Moses on the left and Franco Di Santo up top. The usual suspects played in midfield: Watson, McCarthy and Diame.

Against Spurs, the Ronnie Stam experiment was designed to provide extra defensive cover on the left flank where Gareth Bale was causing problems. It worked to some degree before Gohouri’s red card, and seemed a reasonable approach to keep Villa’s most dangerous player, Gabby Agbonlahor, in check. But as Latics grew more comfortable in possession, they got caught out of position, and when Agbonlahor cut in from the wing in a one-on-one situation with Gary Caldwell, we knew what the outcome would be. Caldwell had been given a yellow card for next to nothing minutes prior, which probably discouraged a professional foul, but credit where it’s due, Agbonlahor produced an absolute rocket of a finish past Caldwell and Al-Habsi.

Latics only created one chance in the first half, and it fell to Franco Di Santo after Victor Moses had broken from midfield, panicked and almost scuffed his pass to the Argentine, who shot low and just wide. With his strength and speed, Moses probably could have gone on his own, but the man’s confidence is low and you can tell.

The second half began with another good effort from Agbonlahor, who again cut in from the left to curl an effort past Al-Habsi, skimming the post in the process. Emmerson Boyce, back from injury, was visibly tiring and would continue to struggle with the Villa striker As the match went on. Barry Bannan had a good long range effort tipped over the bar, before Franco Di Santo, against the run of play, took matters into his own hands. On a mazy run, he slipped in between several Villa defenders and found himself one on one against the keeper when he was clearly clattered by Alan Hutton. Mark Clattenberg and his haircut, both poor all match, the former favouring the home side, ignored it, and minutes later the game would be over.

Bizarrely, Martinez introduced James McArthur as a right-wingback in place of Ronnie Stam. If he was looking for pace to help Boyce deal with Agbonlahor, McArthur was clearly not the man for the job. The Scot was caught in possession and found himself chasing Agbonlahor, who is about seventeen times faster than he is, and also breezed past Boyce to deliver an excellent cross for Darren Bent’s goal.

Then Shaun Maloney was introduced at the tip of the diamond in attacking midfield, and chances started to come. First, Victor Moses slipped in a cheeky through ball which Maloney just failed to make good contact with. Ben Watson fizzed a corner straight through the entire Villa defense, with Gary Caldwell a whisker away. James McArthur whipped a delicious low cross just begging to be tapped in, but no one was on the end of it. Hugo might have, or Sammon. Even Boselli.

But it wasn’t to be.

A Neutral Would Say

Wigan pass it around a lot but don’t have anyone who can stick it in the back of the net. Villa have the opposite, but do look tough to beat under McLeish.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 8 –  Slightly out of position for first goal, probably a result of watching Agbonlahor’s highlight reel in which he curls most of his effort far post. But he kept Latics in the game with a series of outstanding saves, to Darren Bent in the first half, then Bannan and Petrov later on.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 — Tough match for him. Got caught far up the pitch on the first goal, and was then outpaced for the second. Agbonlahor was excellent and Boycey was his main victim. But it was good to have him back, he’ll be important in the next few games.

Gary Caldwell: 5.5 — Hard to grade the captain. He’s been playing in makeshift defenses. It wasn’t his best game, but not his worst either. Most of the danger came from the flank.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Not a long term solution at centre-back. Sometimes looks very good, other times completely out of position. Darren Bent was unlucky not to have scored in the first half.

Ben Watson: 6.5 — Latics did enjoy some excellent possession, much of which was down to Ben. Rushed a pass on a breakaway that might have led to a real chance. Finally delivered one excellent corner, though the rest of his efforts were poor (and Latics had a lot of corners, at least ten).

James McCarthy: 6.5 — His energy levels were great, covering a lot of grass and working very hard defensively. We finally saw a glimpse of the old James when he delicately chipped a ball to Franco Di Santo in the second half. More of that please.

Mo Diame: 6 — Quiet one for Diame, ineffective in attack, but contributed toward good possession.

Ronnie Stam: 6 — Did fairly well in the first half down the right flank although he was nowhere to be seen in the buildup to the goal. Substituted in second half.

Victor Moses: 6.5 — What a shame one of those crossbars or posts had not been a goal earlier in the season. Looks low on confidence but still a threat. Sadly, his finishing was poor once again. Played one excellent through ball for Maloney that could have been a goal.

Franco Di Santo: 7.5 — Worked tirelessly and almost created something out of nothing for the penalty that wasn’t. All he lacks is poacher’s instinct and finishing to poke away those crosses.

Subs:

James McArthur: 5.5 — Every now and again he shows his quality, but his lack of pace is a problem. Roberto seems very loyal to him, but there are better options on the bench.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — Looked bright and inventive. Finally, someone who is looking for that incisive pass, a one-two, making runs into the box. Would be great to see him in the starting lineup, eventually with Rodallega in it as well.

Conor Sammon: 6 — Didn’t have much time. Would like to see Di Santo out wide, with Conor as centre-forward.

Aston Villa – Wigan Athletic Preview: Lively first half needed

The was no shortage of drama between these two clubs during the summer, beginning with Roberto’s decision to reject an approach from Villa for the vacant managerial position, and ending with the sale of star man Charles N’Zogbia. While N’Zogbia has endured a slow start — give him time Villa fans, he’s quality — McLeish has quickly shored up Villa’s defense and led them to an unbeaten start to the season. Inconsistency in the atttacking third has deprived them of further points, but one can hardly fault the manager, who has had to rebuild said attack following the departures of key creative pair Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.

Despite this all, and Wigan’s recent run of bad results, there is reason to believe Roberto’s muchachos can come out of this one with something. Latics have not lost at Villa Park in six Premier League meetings. Last season, they took 4 out of 6 points against Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City side and did not concede a goal in either match (though they only managed to score one in two matches). And though unbeaten, McLeish’s Villa side have only managed one win so far, and that was at home to third-from-bottom Blackburn.

Still, Latics must improve. Defensively, the long-term absence of Antolin Alcaraz continues to sting, while Emmerson Boyce’s niggles and Steve Gohouri’s suspension (after missing five matches through injury) have been unfortunately timed. In their absence, Maynor Figueroa has been asked to deputise at centre-back, where he has been directly responsible for one goal, and beaten to headers for two others. A shame, because with an established central pairing in place, one tends to think Everton away and Spurs at home would have yielded points.

In attack, for all his promise, the club needs goals from Victor Moses. He has hit the post or bar three times this season so far. His excellence in creating chances deserves reward. Maybe this will be the week?

Far too often, Latics start matches slowly, only to deliver a much improved second half performance. Last week’s dismal first half and spirited second could not have been in starker contrast. Can they come out of the blocks firing for once? If they go down a goal, away to a defensive Villa side, it’s hard to see them getting back into it. A first half goal could force Villa to throw numbers forward, and Latics do have pace on the break.

Reports suggest Emmerson Boyce will be fit enough to return to the starting lineup. The hope is that he does so in a central role, partnering Gary Caldwell, with Figueroa restored to his natural position out left, and either Ronnie Stam or Adrian Lopez at right back. But Roberto has surprised us more than once with his starting lineups this year, rotating the squad and limiting opportunities for the new attacking signings. While Rodallega’s absence through injury appeared to provide the perfect opportunity to fully blood Shaun Maloney, or Albert Crusat, Roberto stuck with Jordi Gomez, who has shown some positive form when in midfield this season but confirmed once again against Spurs that he is the worst right winger the club has ever had. I tend to think the lineup will once again be conservative against Villa, with either Van Aanholt or Stam, naturally defenders, playing on one of the wings rather than our more attacking options, Crusat and Maloney. But you never know…

Watch out for: Barry Bannan, Aston Villa’s left-footed midfielder. Very promising young player with great technique. Charles N’Zogbia, who will have a point to prove to his new supporters. Darren Bent, who has had a slow start to the season and loves scoring goals against teams like Wigan.

We need: A good defensive performance. Victor Moses to score, or create a goal.

Prediction: with Boyce strengthening the defense and Villa under pressure to win this one, I’ll say honors even at 1-1, Wigan to score first, N’Zogbia to equalize.

Also of interest: a nice little interview with a Villa fan by Cockney Latic.