Let us know if these previews are starting to become a bit ridiculous with their constant references to must-win fixtures, but I think it’s time to face reality — barring any major miracles against the big boys, if we lose to West Brom this weekend it’s game over. A draw would be pretty bad news too. Three points would give us a chance.
The gloom is founded in our ensuing fixtures, which involve Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal — three of them away — followed by in-form, new-look Fulham (also away), and tricky though beatable Newcastle. The only saving grace, if survival is still mathematically attainable by then, is that the final two matches of the season are against direct rivals Blackburn and Wolves.
When we wrote our survival analysis several weeks ago, we were banking on a real point return from the recent fixtures against Villa, Swansea and Norwich. We should have emerged with six points from those nine, and instead got two.
The interesting thing is that I would argue that recent performances — excluding the Swansea match when key players were jetlagged or benched — have been on par with those that saved us in the run-in last year. The defense has pulled together as it did last year, with Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz hitting form over the last 5-6 matches, and the Jimmy Macs strong in midfield. The desire is there.
The difference of course, is in the goals. We don’t have Charles N’Zogbia. Hugo Rodallega was bright enough against Norwich but was a substitute for most of the season due to his clear desire to be somewhere else. Victor Moses took his goal very well against Norwich, as he did the last time we met West Brom — but those were both exceptions to his generally sub-par finishing. Mo Diame could have won the game for us twice last Saturday but fluffed his lines. It’s tragic to watch.
I’m just not sure what to think about this one. West Brom have been in decent form and will be out for revenge after Latics came from behind to beat them at The Hawthorns not too long ago, but really ought to be beaten at home. Except of course, for our poor home form.
From a selection perspective, there is good news. Influential defender Jonas Olsson is suspended, and Peter Odemwingie is apparently doubtful. Just about everyone is fit for us, the most inspirational of whom could be Shaun Maloney, who made such an impact with his incisive passing and sharp footwork when replacing Jordi Gomez against Norwich. What might the season have looked like if he had been fit and involved all along? I’ve often felt that our attacking problems are in equal parts poor finishing and lack of service. The strikers live on scraps. Maloney, in his 30-odd minutes on the pitch, provided more defense-splitting passes than Jordi has all season.
Surely this will be the match Mohamed Diame reclaims his starting berth in midfield. He was by far the best outfield player in a Wigan shirt before leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, but has not started a match since. One suspects that he has taken a leaf out of Rodallega’s book and focused his attention on a summer move rather than the Robin Park training ground during these winter months. But he’s still the best we have in midfield, and should be on the pitch.
Another of the real revelations of the season, Ronnie Stam, must be wondering what he’s done wrong. Given the opportunity to play in his natural position at wing-back, the Dutchman excelled until the return to fitness of Emmerson Boyce. He is clearly not as good a defender at Boyce, but a much better attacker. Home fixtures against mid-table or lower teams like WBA present reasonable opportunities to take attacking risks. Beausejour and Stam have yet to feature in the same lineup, which is an absolute crime for a team struggling to score goals.
Last but not least, there’s Callum McManaman, who has barely featured since his return from a successful loan spell at Blackburn. He scored in his only start, the embarrassing loss at Swindon. Fellow Amigos’ writer Jakarta Jack suggested that McManaman’s performances for the reserves in the striker role should see him replace Rodallega. We could certainly use someone with some confidence in front of goal, someone who has scored some goals this season and doesn’t hesitate at the crucial moment. With reports this morning suggesting that the Colombian is doubtful, it could be an opportunity. Although Di Santo is likely to start ahead of him should those reports be true.
Keep an eye out for:
Shaun Maloney, if he plays. He was dynamite when he came on against Norwich. If he’s fit enough to start, fantastic. If not, I would hope for a McArthur-McCarthy-Diame midfield, with Maloney on in the 2nd half as an impact sub. Unfortunately, Jordi Gomez has produced too little to to retain his place in the starting lineup, despite a string of games over the festive period that suggested he had finally found his feet in a Wigan shirt.
My heart says we are finally going to break the jinx and win this one. My brain, or the tormented bundle of nerves and anxiety that is left of it, reserves comment.