Despite Sunderland’s recent and rather convincing hammering of West Ham, Wigan must be looking at this fixture as a golden opportunity to put some space between themselves and the relegation zone.
The morning’s news that former Latics keeper Nigel Adkins has been inexplicably sacked down at Southampton has added an extra layer of intrigue to a tight-as-ever survival race. The Saints’ comeback against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge just the other day was simply stunning, but the owners have chosen another path. Adkins’ replacement will be the relatively inexperienced Mauricio Pochettino. The February 2nd fixture against Wigan will be his third in charge, following the visit of Everton and trip to Manchester United. Baptism of fire, then. On the surface, it appears Southampton have committed suicide.
Meanwhile, Sunderland are probably this season’s biggest under-achievers, expected to kick on under the guidance of Martin O’Neill and boosted by the attacking signings of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson. Instead, they’ve been poor, with apparent dips in form from important players such as Seb Larsson, Stephane Sessignon and James McLean in the first half of the season. All three looked sharp against West Ham, mind.
The reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light was cruelly decided by the extremely harsh sending off of Jordi Gomez. Prior to that, Latics had enjoyed the better chances with James McCarthy and Arouna Kone going particularly close. One would expect Martinez to plan for this match with attacking intentions.
The big question — once again — is whether Mauro Boselli will be given another chance following his stunning cup strike against Bouremouth with a league start. A repeat lineup featuring a packed midfield and Maloney as a second striker would be extremely conservative. Franco Di Santo showed again that while his poaching leaves a little to be desired, his ability to break from a deeper position is a good natural fit. To pair the Argentineans together would result in each playing in their natural position.
Of course, their success will depend heavily on service. Jean Beausejour will start, but there is a question mark over whether Emmerson Boyce will be allowed to continue his fine run of form in the right wingback position, or will be used as a centre-half to cover for the injured Ivan Ramis. If so, Ronnie Stam will get another opportunity.
Always a tricky fixture to predict, this is a massive opportunity for Wigan. Three points would not only put some distance between themselves and those in the relegation zone — it would bring Latics level with Southampton, heaping pressure on new manager Pochettino in the process. Sunderland are no mugs, however — last season’s corresponding fixture showed that a game can turn on a moment of brilliance, and they have several individuals capable of mustering just that.