We felt in our match preview that this was a tough time to play Sunderland, a revitalized side brimming with confidence after claiming Manchester City’s scalp on the weekend. Rarely will you see two strikes as sublime as those of Craig Gardner and James Vaughn in the same 90 minutes, and indeed it seemed everything went Sunderland’s way. But the scoreline, and headlines in most of today’s publications, paint a very false picture of a match Wigan had the better of, and should have put to bed before crucial decisions turned it upside down.
The first half was all Wigan — almost. Roberto turned a few heads with his stating lineup, resting the key duo of Victor Moses and Mohammed Diame; Albert Crusat and Ben Watson starting in their stead. The 3-4-2-1 formation that has yielded Latics best results this season was left intact. Steve Gohouri took Gary Caldwell’s position at the centre of the back three, while Dave Jones and Ronnie Stam continued as advanced wing-backs, protected by the mostly defensive central midfield pairing of James McCarthy and Ben Watson. Ahead of them, Crusat started inside left, Jordi inside right, and Rodallega up top — though such is the fluidity of this system that Jordi’s was more of a free-role, popping up left, right and center, with Ronnie Stam constantly overlapping him on the right wing.
It didn’t take long for Latics to carve out an opening, as Crusat sped down the left wing, crossing dangerously for Rodallega, narrowly beaten to the ball by John O’Shea. The passing and movement of the opening 20 minutes was hugely promising — possession at one point was 70% Wigan — although Antolin Alcaraz and Steve Gohouri foreshadowed the shambles of the second half with some risky misplaced passes around the penalty area.
Dave Jones was having his best game at left wing-back, and soon found himself in the box after fantastic interplay with Albert Crusat and Jordi Gomez. His left-footed shot beat Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet, cannoned back to Ronnie Stam, who laid it off with class for Ben Watson. The midfielder lunged with his right foot striking the other post before Sunderland defenders scrambled the ball clear.
The bad luck would continue, with Albert Crusat limping off two thirds of the way through the second half after a neat and effective display. It appeared he had taken a knee to the ribs, but reports say the injury was actually to his back. He was struggling to breathe before his substitution. Here’s for a speedy recovery as he has impressed on his displays thus far.
Victor Moses replaced him and minutes later, Jones again created space for himself in the box, this time shooting for the near post. It produced the save of the game from Mignolet, who not only blocked the shot with a steel hand but recovered in time to deny the lurking Maynor Figueroa.
It looked a matter of time until Latics opened the scoring amid the swirling rain and wind, but then came a series of unfortunate refereeing decisions. First, the fourth official signaled for five minutes of injury time — a bit excessive despite earlier knocks to Bendtner, Cattermole, in addition to Crusat. Mike Dean then failed to award Latics a corner after Antolin Alcaraz’ heavily deflected shot ran past the touchline. So obvious was the corner that Simon Mignolet sprinted off his line and dove to try and divert the ball for a throw-in. Moments later, at the other end, Nicklas Bendtner went down surrounded by Latics players — probably hoping to run the remaining minute of time down — and was awarded a free-kick. Replays would show there was no foul, but Craig Gardner would take full advantage to score the most beautiful free-kick you are likely to see this season. In the sixth minute of injury time.
To say it knocked the stuffing out of Wigan would be an understatement. Latics went in search of an equalizer in the second half but found Sunderland’s defense as resolute as Man City did days earlier. James McLean, a former Latics transfer target last season who had looked dangerous all match, popped up with a headed second before Martinez threw on Conor Sammon for Ronnie Stam. The shape changed to something of a 3-4-3-1, with Rodallega and Moses out on the wings, Jordi floating, and Sammon as target. And it was one of Rodallega’s energetic runs cutting in from the left that resulted in a deflected goal for the Colombian. At 2-1 down and the crowd back in the game, it looked like Latics had the momentum to go on and equalize, perhaps win.
But things would get worse. Maynor Figueroa appeared to be tugged by Bendtner and stopped playing as the Dane continued his run down the right wing, feeding Sessegnon for the goal that killed the game. If it was a foul, it was another awful refereeing decision just as Latics were regaining momentum. If it was not a foul, Figueroa made a terrible mistake as he might have blocked the ensuing cross had he not stopped in his tracks. Camera angles on the replay were not tight enough to draw conclusions.
By the time the fourth went in, Latics’ back three were a mess. Gary Caldwell’s presence and leadership was clearly missed, and many will be hoping Emmerson Boyce is restored to the starting lineup in Gohouri’s stead for the next two games. That said, they were isolated, playing in torrential conditions, and everything Sunderland seemed to attempt was working. When a shot was frantically blocked at the top of the box, James Vaughn unleashed a thunderbolt of a strike that none of us — Ali Al-Habsi included — saw until the replay slowed it down for us. Sunderland won’t score two goals like his or Gardner’s again this season.
It’s worth mentioning that Latics did have chances to equalize and reduce the deficit, but lacked a killer edge. The game swung on two passages of play — the Jones-Watson double-post, and the series of events leading to Sunderland’s first goal.
It is hard to take yet another match in which unfavourable refereeing heavily influenced the outcome. Add this latest disappointment to the treatment at Old Trafford, the points lost to Blackburn as a result of Gamst Pedersen’s illegal corner, a fixture list featuring all three newly promoted sides in the first three matches of the season and the traditional big four in a row over the Christmas period — and it really does appear a concerted effort to make sure little Wigan finally get relegated to make way for a more profitable team. Phil Dowd and Mike Dean are two of the league’s most experienced referees. Andre Marriner is no longer a rookie. Why are they making these sort of mistakes? Sure, our defense eventually fell apart, but anyone watching the match up until the first goal — which should not have stood — would have told you that Latics looked destined to win this match until that free-kick was given.
Al Al-Habsi: 6.5 — Not to blame for any of the goals.
Steve Gohouri: 5.5 — Almost gave away a goal in the first half. Didn’t make any glaring mistakes but his nerves had a negative effect on the other two centre-backs, who had been playing very well in recent times.
Antolin Alcaraz: 6 — Put the defense under pressure repeatedly with misplaced passes.
Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Had a decent first half, but stopped playing altogether in the buildup to the third goal, which was really the nail in the coffin. Was he fouled?
Ronnie Stam: 7 — Had a very good first half, making overlapping runs down the right wing. His deliveries were top quality — we could use more attacking players who can head the ball. Also had the coolness to lay the ball off to Watson for what was almost Latics first goal.
David Jones: 7 — His best attacking display, particularly in the first half, where his intelligent passing and interplay with Crusat and Gomez led to Latics two best chances. Unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. Unfortunately, he got caught in possession in the buildup to the second goal.
James McCarthy: 7.5 — He is becoming a quality defensive midfielder. His energy levels are great, he rarely gives the ball away. I personally miss the quality of his attacking play, but it was his midfield for most of the match.
Ben Watson: 6.5 — Showed his class and technique with some lovely cross-field balls, very unlucky to hit the post.
Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Was at the heart of Latics best attacking work, but grew frustrated — the conditions didn’t help.
Albert Crusat: 7 — Quick, neat passer of the ball, had a good first half before being substituted for injury.
Hugo Rodallega: 7 — No clear chances, but got a deflected goal and caused problems for the Sunderland defense. More likely to score than Conor Sammon or Franco Di Santo.
Victor Moses: 7 — Called into action earlier than expected, started where Crusat left off proving a handful. But Sunderland had too many men behind the ball.
Conor Sammon: 6 — Again all effort but no end product.