It was billed as the grand finale to a topsy turvy season for Wigan Athletic. The home match with fellow strugglers, Aston Villa, was to be crucial in determining Latics’ future in the Premier League. But sometimes things just don’t work out as you hope they will.
Wigan Athletic go into their last match at the end of a remarkable eight year stay in the Premier League. They come out of it stronger than when they went in. Latics now have a strong identity, a sound infrastructure and a much increased fan base. The wonderful cup final victory has gained them millions of admirers all over the world, not just through the result, but by the style with which they played.
The encounter with Aston Villa allows the opportunity for fans to celebrate those eight years and to savour the incredible achievement of winning the FA Cup. The match also gives Roberto Martinez the opportunity to blood young players outside the pressure-cooker atmosphere that has prevented him doing so in these past years of fighting relegation.
Despite looking a poor side for most of the season, Villa have maintained their Premier League status through an end of season rally. Much of that upturn in results was down to goals from the striking partnership of Gabriel Agbonlahor and big Belgian striker, Christian Benteke, who has netted a remarkable 19 goals in his first season in England’s top league. Moreover Agbonlahor’s pace has often proved a thorn in the side for Wigan – he has scored 5 goals against them in previous encounters.
Benteke will not be lining up at the DW Stadium on Sunday due to a red card received in the home loss to Chelsea. However, Villa do have Darren Bent ready to step in. Bent has been frozen out by Paul Lambert, making only seven starts all season, scoring two goals.
Like Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa are making every effort to keep a balanced budget and it looks like Bent – who reportedly earns £65,000 a week – could be playing his last match for the club. Villa’s problem is that he still has a couple of years left on his contract. Other high wage earners, Stephen Ireland and Shay Given, also remain under contract and will be difficult to budge.
Aston Villa have a fine record at the DW Stadium having won four matches and drawn two over the previous six seasons. Latics will be keen to break this pattern.
The pressure is off for both teams in Sunday’s encounter. It promises to be a good match, with either team capable of winning. Reports suggest that Jean Beausejour will make a welcome return from a hamstring injury and that Adrian Lopez has a chance of making the game after an injury plagued season. Lopez could well become an important player in the Championship next year and Martinez might be tempted to give him a run out.
It is conceivable that up to a half of the players who play for Wigan Athletic on Sunday will not be with the club next season. In terms of team selection Martinez faces the dilemma of whether to stick with the nucleus of his cup winning team or to look to the future. The match provides a great opportunity to give youth a chance.