A refreshing wind of optimism swirls around the DW Stadium ahead of Sunday’s crunch match against Newcastle. As painful as the Liverpool setback was a fortnight ago, Roberto Martinez’s team is enjoying a fine run of form that has seen Huddersfield, Reading and Everton dispatched by three-goal spreads, with two clean sheets obtained in the process.
The results are almost as concerning as they are remarkable, however, given the successes were achieved away while the 4-0 fracas was suffered at home. Much like the bulk of last season, Wigan just cannot seem to get going on their home patch. Of course, last time around it did finally click, and in some style, with the 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle a highlight. With Norwich next in line to visit, these two home fixtures are crucial.
In any case, the injection of positivity has not jut come from reaching the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history, but the manner in which it was achieved. I cannot remember a team so dominant at Goodison Park in the past decade — and this is certainly the strongest Everton team in that time. That Latics achieved it with a mixed lineup and attacking formation was all the more remarkable. It also makes the guess-work quite tricky for a potential lineup against Newcastle this weekend.
One unfortunate loss is that of Callum McManaman — a driving force in Wigan’s cup run — to an ankle injury. While he has not been starting in the league, he would have made a solid case to do so this weekend — particularly if Martinez continues with his more traditional back four and wingers, as opposed to his previously preferred wingback system. The switch has resulted in improved attacking play and offered much-needed unpredictability against opponents who had figured out that they key to stopping Wigan was to stop their wing-backs. It has also surprisingly improved the defensive record with two clean sheets out of four, although this may have more to do with the fitness levels of the personnel available now versus earlier in the season. Given the performances of Antolin Alcaraz and Paul Scharner against Everton, it is hard to foresee a return for captain Gary Caldwell this weekend.
If Martinez were to preserve the Everton back four, the only difference to the defence would be the return of Ali Al-Habsi. Up front, Franco Di Santo will probably join Arouna Kone, with Shaun Maloney taking McManaman’s place on the right wing. It’s anyone’s guess whether Jordi Gomez, excellent against Everton in a central midfield role, will retain his place or lose out to James McArthur.
Meanwhile, Newcastle are “fresh” from a 1-0 victory over Guus Hiddink and Samuel Eto’o’s Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. The hope, of course, is that they will not be so fresh. Stand-in captain and Yohan Cabaye limped off in the first half of match on Thursday and will surely be a doubt. Hatem Ben Arfa has also been out with a hamstring injury. Both are quality players and important for the cause, but Newcastle nonetheless have the look of a refreshed side, reinvigorated by January signings and recent improvement.
Crucial to Wigan’s chances is striking the first blow. The team has a dangerous tendency to implode upon conceding, but has looked increasingly deadly on the break and likely to increase a lead when striking first. A patient first half approach would be wise, with a second half push if things remain cagey. A win would do wonders for the Wigan survival cause, but this is likely to be the trickier of the back-to-back home fixtures. Four points from them should be considered a success.