This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about having to face a team at an unfortunate time.
But since our boys — with a little help from Wes Brown — got Steve Bruce sacked in late November, Martin O’Neill has predictably turned things around quite dramatically at Sunderland. In his first game in charge, the Black Cats scored a last minute winner to topple Blackburn. They fought bravely but lost 1-0 at Spurs, then beat Queen’s Park Rangers 3-2 In London, drew at home with in-form Everton, and most recently shocked everyone by not only beating but keeping a clean sheet against league leading Manchester City. Not a bad start.
The good news is that they must be quite exhausted after that effort. Even before that fixture, they were a bit banged up — more on that later. A trip to Wigan might just be the sort of occasion to bring them back down to earth. The bad news, of course, is that our lads are hardly fresh having just played the hardest set of winter fixtures in recent memory: Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Stoke away.
Still, there is plenty to feel optimistic about. The last two home fixtures saw some of our best football this season, matching Chelsea and Liverpool in every respect. The team looks confident, more of our players than not are performing close to the best, and there is both belief and momentum.
Although Roberto has largely stuck with the same lineup in recent times (minus the Hugo-Sammon swap vs. Stoke), I wouldn’t be surprised if he opted to make a change or two today to keep things fresh. Gary Caldwell is suspended for his deliberate handball and needs to be replaced by either Steve Gohouri or Emmerson Boyce. If fit, the latter would be most people’s choice, which would probably see Antolin Alcaraz move to the center of the back three, Boycey slotting in on the right. Ability-wise, it may actually be Latics strongest defense. But Wigan will miss Caldwell’s leadership and committed performances — he has been a big part of the resurrection and deserves praise.
Up front, Hugo Rodallega was instrumental in both Latics’ goals at Stoke and should retain his place along with the irreplaceable Victor Moses. James McCarthy, Momo Diame and Jordi Gomez have largely been very good, but Ben Watson is fresher and might be given a chance. Dave Jones has done a commendable job as a makeshift wing-back but his lack of pace and natural suitability for the position might tempt Roberto into giving Patrick Van Aanholt a game.
Sunderland, meanwhile, were a bit banged up before the Man City match — hopefully even more so after it. John O’Shea and fomer Latics target Matthew Kilgallon played in centre of defense after Wes Brown limped off with a groin injury. Midfielders Jack Colback and Craig Gardner played at left and right back respectively. Simon Mignolet played in goal with a protective mask because Craig Gordon had the flu. So it was a makeshift defense that recorded a clean sheet against the league’s top scorers. Which is all the more impressive, and surely points to an organized midfield in front of it — former Latic Lee Cattermole was hailed as man of the match by most sources in the City victory.
Heart says… Sunderland performed at their very best against Man City, which is hard to do twice in a row. Their squad is littered with injuries and it might actually be a decent time to play them. Going big with a 3-1 win for Latics.
Cynical mind says… Martin O’Neill has them playing disciplined, organized football. Morale must be sky high. They remain very dangerous from Seb Larsson set pieces. Our lads may be knackered and wouldn’t be surprised if we lost an important player to injury. 1-1 draw.