While it would be a bit extreme to label Saturday’s fixture against Reading a must-win, it is surely a must-not-lose. Neither scenario is arithmetically true, but if you take a good look at the surrounding teams in the league table — Reading simply has to be one of the three to go down if Wigan are to stay up. It’s a six-pointer, with even greater significance than the points lost or gained. Latics’ victory at Bolton this time last year not only kick-started their fantastic run of form, but sent Bolton spiraling towards the Championship.
So, no pressure then.
Recent loss at Tottenham aside, Reading find themselves in a rich vein of form — sixth in the Premier League form table after victories over Sunderland, Newcastle, West Brom and a creditable draw against Chelsea. Brian McDermott and super-sub Adam Le Fondre were named Premier League Manager and Player of the Month respectively, and spirits must be running high. They have developed a reputation for heroic comebacks and last-minute goals, both testament to their team spirit and fitness levels. It also speaks volumes of their home support. But you get the sense that they have been a bit lucky even if they’ve made that luck themselves through sheer desire — their goals tend to be scrappy. This is a team Wigan should be able to beat but as ever, it will depend on the defensive performance. If they can manage a win, Reading could slump back into 19th place, a cruelly deflating blow after their recent heroics.
From the Wigan perspective, Roberto Martinez’s decision to play a mixed team in the FA Cup instead of his customary second string approach means his team goes into the match with some positive momentum. Arouna Koné’s brace against Huddersfield should give him a shot of confidence, as will James McArthur’s cracker. The Scot has shown since the turn of the year that he can be a real attacking threat, a very positive revelation. Franco Di Santo was rested against Huddersfield but could return, while man of the match Callum McManaman continues to push for a start but may have to settle for a role as an impact sub unless Martinez opts for a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation instead of his customary 3-4-3. Jordi Gomez, who scored a hat-trick in the reverse fixture, will be hoping for a chance to increase his tally.
At the back, captain Gary Caldwell will likely return in place of understudy Roman Golobart, but his partners Maynor Figueroa and Paul Scharner should keep their places. Emmerson Boyce and Antolin Alcaraz are reportedly in contention for this game, although it’s safe to say only the former is likely to be involved. A well-rested James McCarthy will return to midfield and his form is crucial to the club’s course over the final third of the season. Shaun Maloney, without a shadow of a doubt Wigan’s player of the season so far, will be hoping to add to his superbly well-taken goal against Chelsea against less-accomplished opposition.
It is always hard to quantify the value of experience in a football match or over the course of a season, but it most frequently boils down to keeping calm, making good decisions, and peaking when the time is right. Wigan Athletic are nothing if not experienced in these types of situations, while Reading are fairly fresh-faced. On current form and on paper, this should be a home win. But Wigan have done what’s necessary time and time again when it has mattered — particularly against direct rivals. You’d be a fool to bet against them.