Two embattled Spanish managers meet head-to-head tomorrow, as relegation-troubled Wigan Athletic travel to Stamford Bridge to meet a Chelsea side whose recent results are not meeting the expectations of their owner nor their fans. Both managers have good track records, albeit in under very different circumstances.
Nobody can deny that the Madrid-born Rafael Benitez has been involved in major successes during his career. With Valencia he challenged the Madrid-Barcelona hegemony achieving two Spanish League titles, also winning the UEFA Cup. Few in England will forget his Liverpool team’s miraculous comeback in winning the Champions League final against AC Milan. Although still only 52 years old he has the kind of wealth of experience that places Roberto Martinez in the category of ‘promising young manager’ in comparison. The 39 year old Martinez‘ career clearly has much further to go, but his accomplishments up to this point should not be underrated. Martinez not only established Swansea in the Championship division, but also provided them with a footballing legacy that has seen them prosper ever since. On a tighter budget than his predecessors at Wigan he has kept the club in the Premier League for the past three years, insisting that they play attractive football.
Benitez comes into this match desperate for a good result, his team having gone four games without a win. Martinez’ team are third from bottom and have only won one of their last 12 league matches. Moreover Wigan tend to play particularly bad following international breaks. No wonder the bookmakers’ odds firmly point to Chelsea victory. However, let’s cast our minds back to April of last season when Wigan were so unlucky to lose 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, beaten by two offside goals, the second being in added-on time at the end of the game. When the teams met at the DW Stadium in August a couple of defensive errors let in the visitors for a 2-0 win, although the overall Wigan team performance that day was by no means bad.
Wigan Athletic are actually two points ahead of where they were at this same point last season. However, they remain in serious danger of relegation. They will be buoyed by the return of leading scorer, Arouna Kone, from African Nations Cup duty with Ivory Coast. Not only is Kone leading scorer, but his hold-up play is important for his team. Despite the physical challenges he has faced from ruthless Premier League central defenders he has shown such self-discipline that he has not received a single yellow card this season. Moreover he has made 5 assists, in line with team mates Jean Beausejour and Shaun Maloney. Martinez will have to decide whether to stick to his recent formation with five in midfield, or whether to employ Kone and Franco Di Santo as twin strikers.
Gary Caldwell is a doubt for tomorrow, having picked up a hip injury. Sadly his potential replacement, Antolin Alcaraz, is still not fully fit, although he might well make his overdue reappearance in next week’s FA Cup tie. Last week against Southampton, Paul Scharner started at right centre back, later moving to right full back when the shape was changed to a flat back four. He will probably revert to the former role tomorrow, with young Roman Golobart or Adrian Lopez being brought back if Caldwell does not make it. If Caldwell were to play there would be a possibility of employing Scharner as a right wing back, depending on the fitness of Emmerson Boyce and whether Martinez has the confidence in Ronnie Stam’s defensive qualities. Were Scharner to move to wing back Martinez would bring Golobart or Lopez into central defence.
Latics go into this match with nothing to lose. Interestingly Chelsea have received more penalties than any other team this season, 8, and Wigan have conceded the most, 7. Nobody expects them to get a result at Chelsea, especially after an international break. No less than 8 of last week’s starting lineup played for their countries on Wednesday. The odds are stacked against Wigan, but with a little luck and some fair refereeing, one never knows what might happen.