It’s hard to remember a senior member of the current Wigan squad who has not publicly stated that league survival trumps cup success this year — but no one put it better than Roberto Martinez yesterday in comments to The Guardian, in reference to today’s clash with Manchester City.
“In many aspects the league game is bigger,” he said. “I don’t think there are games which are more important than others. They are all very significant. But if you are asking me what it represents for a club like Wigan winning the FA Cup final or staying in the Premier League, then staying in the Premier League would mean the next 10 years of the football club would be financially very stable. The new facilities that we have planned can happen and behind the scenes the club can go to a different level.
“But when you have the opportunity to win the FA Cup, you can’t disregard it and say that’s not important. They are both important. This is the sort of season we want. There’s only Manchester City, Chelsea and Wigan who are involved in two competitions at this moment. It requires a strong mentality and we’ve never had that before.”
To further assert the point, Martinez yesterday admitted that the season would be assessed as a failure internally should the team win the FA Cup but subsequently be relegated from the league. The money involved in another season in the league is what keeps the club developing behind the scenes, and a year without it would represent a huge setback to the excellent progress of recent years.
He also outlined the strength of his squad. This is a squad that was torn apart by injuries for the first half of the season but is finally approaching full strength. The lessons of Birmingham and Portsmouth — teams fighting on two fronts that eventually lost out in the league — are valuable, but neither team was peaking in form or fitness as Latics currently are, or had strength in numbers. Wigan’s bench, with Franco Di Santo, Gary Caldwell, James McArthur and until recently, Ali Al-Habsi, has never been stronger.
With a very important fixture at West Ham looming next Saturday, we may witness some changes to the starting eleven tonight. It will be interesting to see if Ali Al-Habsi retains his place, or if his role for the rest of the season will be that of Cup Goalkeeper, as was Joel Robles’ before the Everton performance changed things.
It’s hard to forsee any changes in the back four unless there is concern over the fitness levels of either Paul Scharner or Antolin Alcaraz, who played very few minutes in 2012. In midfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see James McArthur included to add steel in midfield. And Franco Di Santo must be itching for a game. The Argentine has been the victim of Callum McManaman’s emergence and the change of shape to accomodate traditional wingers instead of wing-backs. But with a contract on the negotiation table, Martinez will want him to feel involved and important to the team.
While it is highly unlikely that Wigan should obtain two positive results against an in-form Manchester City side at away and neutral venues respectively, the pragmatist among us would happily settle for one. The impossible question, of course, is which of the two?
A loss today in the league would not crush Wigan’s hopes of staying up, considering there are more accessible fixtures remaining from which to gain the necessary 8-9 points such as West Ham and West Brom away, or Swansea, Spurs and Aston Villa at home. On the other hand, every point matters at this stage and the league table is tighter than ever.
The key today will be whether our players can retain their focus and energy levels after their Wembley adventure, against a wildly different opponent, and one they’ve struggled against. The odds are not favourable, but Manchester City was one of the few scalps Wigan did not claim in the amazing run last season — can they do it this time around?