Everton 0 Wigan Athletic 3: Rampant Latics into semi-finals for the first time

macca

Three goals in four magical minutes highlighted a complete performance by a mixed but well balanced Wigan XI as they reached the FA Cup’s final four for the first time in the club’s history.

However precarious their league position, the accomplishment at Goodison Park shines a light on the progress achieved in the Roberto Martinez era. Not only was this an impressive away win against a strong team hungry for silverware — several of today’s starters were fringe players, and the captain was rested. This sort of depth simply did not exist at the club three years ago.

In a more immediate sense, this was the best possible way to put the Liverpool fracas behind them and bore a lot more resemblance to the success at Reading. There is no hiding that Wigan’s best football is coming away from home in that black strip. Before Figueroa’s opening goal — an achievement in itself as it came from a set piece against one of the biggest teams in the league — Shaun Maloney had hit the post with an excellent curling effort and James McCarthy had been denied by Tim Howard’s replacement in the Everton goal, Jan Mucha. At the other end, Everton had been limited to a single chance well-saved by young Spanish keeper Joel Robles.

The second half was an exercise in resistance, with the sorely missed Antolin Alcaraz comfortably returning to the centre of defence after a season blighted with injury. Everton huffed and puffed but couldn’t create the breakthrough, and Wigan cruised to a second consecutive 3-0 away victory.

The Good:

Performances like this breathe fresh hope into the club’s survival prospects in the league. The return of Antolin Alcaraz brought defensive solidity and an assured presence. Concentration and focus was everything is wasn’t against Liverpool a week ago.

Martinez got his tactics right, deploying a strong back four, with Jean Beausejour and Callum McManaman in more advanced wing positions and Jordi Gomez partnering James McCarthy in midfield. Much of Wigan’s attacking success came down the left wing, where both Beausejour and Gomez were able to find space and deliver left footed crosses into the box. Though comparatively quiet on the right hand side, Callum McManaman looked sharp and took his goal superbly. His presence in a more traditional winger role was probably also intended to keep Leighton Baines pegged back, and was largely effective in doing so.

The finishing was superb and came from different areas of the pitch, from different types of situations. A set piece, a breakaway, and a goal from attacking possession. Header, right-foot, left-foot.

Joel Robles had a very good game in goal and looks a promising young deputy for Ali Al-Habsi.

The Bad:

Injuries to Callum McManaman and his replacement, Ryo Miyaichi, were the only negatives from today’s match. Results elsewhere, however — with victories for QPR and Aston Villa and an away point for Southampton — heap the pressure on Wigan to keep up.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7.5 — Made several good saves, both high and low, suggesting he is an agile shot stopper. Dealt well with a couple crosses and on the whole looks a decent young keeper. Martinez will be keen to make his loan move permanent this summer.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Focused and disciplined in defense. Didn’t get forward but largely dealt with the significant threat of Baines and Steven Pienaar down the flank.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Strong and composed. Surely the season would have gone quite differently if he had been fit and available. Will captain Gary Caldwell get his place back?

Paul Scharner: 8 — Excellent, with one spectacular tackle to block a Baines cross in the first half, and good work in the air to thwart Marouanne Fellaini.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Another excellent performer, strong in defence and among the goalscorers once again.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Steady and carried greater defensive responsibility given his more attacking partner in midfield.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Took his goal extremely well and held his own in a less familiar central midfield role. Not as strong defensively as James McArthur but his left foot offered greater variety in Wigan’s attacking play.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Good performance from the Chilean, who rarely wasted the ball, showed some quick footwork and linked up well with his teammates. Most of Wigan’s attacking play came down his side.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent touch and finish for the goal. Had earlier played a lovely cross-pitch ball to Shaun Maloney, who hit the post. Not terribly involved, but sharp when called into action. Pushing for a league start.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Unlucky not to be on the score sheet. Buzzed about as ever, drawing fouls and causing trouble.

Arouna Kone: 7.5 — Superb hold-up play all match long despite battling two physical central defenders on his own. Headed a decent chance over the bar early in the first half but didn’t have any other opportunities to score himself. Rewarded with an assist for the third goal.

Subs:

Ryo Miyaichi: 6 — Looked a bit rusty after missing several months through injury. Went off injured again after being clattered into the advertising boards.

James McArthur: N/A — Came on for Miyaichi and hold on to the result.

Reading 0 Wigan Athletic 3: Latics rising

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While the pre-match league table suggested it was Wigan Athletic destined for football in the second tier next season, the emphatic nature of their 3-0 triumph over Reading this afternoon indicated the Premier League is a far more suitable home. The gulf in class was apparent early on, and the match was effectively over after 50 minutes with a perfect trio of headed, right-footed and left-footed goals. What ensued would best be described as a keep-away training ground routine for Roberto Martinez’s charges.

The Good:

The manager got his tactics right. The flexibility and fluidity of the team’s shape was a huge asset. He started the game with a hugely experienced back four, all of whom displayed the kind of calm and level-headed defended we’ve seen too little of this season, and earned a morale-boosting clean sheet for their troubles. Jean Beausejour, in a more advanced role on the left, was more influential than in recent times, playing the stunning through ball for Arouna Koné’s second goal. The second half switch to his customary wingbacks in the second half was seamless, while the tactical change also afforded Shaun Maloney greater freedom, who in turn orchestrated proceedings for the rest of the game.

Arouna Koné has returned from the African Cup of Nations refreshed. He has now scored four goals in two games, and his expert chipped finish for the second goal was the mark of a confident striker. Despite missing several fixtures in January and February, he is on track to be the club’s top scorer by some distance.

What an astute signing Paul Scharner is turning out to be. His experience and versatility were just the tonic for Latics’ ailing back line. He has slotted into various roles seamlessly, and it will be a surprise if anyone dislodges him from the starting lineup.

Emmerson Boyce made a welcome return after missing several matches through injury, while it was a great pleasure to see Antolin Alcaraz make his return after missing the bulk of the season. Word is Ryo Miyaichi is approaching full fitness — Martinez will soon have a near-full squad to choose from.

The Bad:

Despite escaping the bottom three, the league table is still frighteningly tight. But today’s was a performance to celebrate.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Didn’t have to make one save. Dealt with crosses well.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Got beaten once or twice in the first half, but improved as the game went along and made some dangerous runs down the right in the second half.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Composed and patient.

Paul Scharner: 8 — Made some outstanding tackles in the first half, used the ball well, and enjoyed his final ten minutes making forays down the right wing.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Scored a lovely goal following excellent interplay with Di Santo, and you could see what it meant to him. Almost scored a follow-up cracker, denied by Reading keeper Adam Federici.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — A decent outing for him. The advanced, more traditional wing role he played in the first half allowed him to be more influential. By the time he reverted to the wingback position in the second, Wigan were firmly in control, and he continued to play dangerous curled balls into the box.

James McArthur: 6 — A few misplaced passes and got caught in possession a couple times — possibly affected by the mask he was wearing. It wasn’t his best first half, but he was comfortable in the second.

James McCarthy: 6 — Quiet, but efficient and kept things ticking. Never once lost the ball.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Strangely, was not directly involved in any of the goals. Was his usual nippy, creative self though, and he very controlled the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — As against Chelsea, he deserved a goal for a strong performance full of inventive running and passing. His flick for Figueroa’s goal was sublime. Was inches from connecting with driven crosses across a couple times.

Arouna Koné: 8 — Very good. Strong in possession, unselfish but hungry for goals. Got two, almost made it a hat-trick.

Subs:

Jordi Gomez: Game was over by the time he came on, but he was happy to play tikki-takka until the clock ran down.

Antolin Alcaraz: Great to see him back. Slotted back into his right of center position and got ten minutes under his belt.

Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 3: Latics punish fragile Villans

There was a vulnerability to Paul Lambert’s young Aston Villa side today thoroughly reminiscent of Wigan Athletic in Roberto Martinez’s first year at the club. Tactical naivety, inexperience and a struggle to adjust to the pace and physical demands of the Premier League to name a few similarities.

What Lambert is trying to do at Villa is not dissimilar in magnitude to Roberto’s undertaking at Wigan — it’s a long-term project. He has bravely frozen out Darren Bent, who must be on a huge financial packet, and put his faith in a promising but inexperienced crop of youngsters. They’ve now suffered three humiliating defeats in a row for a total score of 0-15. But if they survive, and by extension if Lambert is given time to see his project through, it will be intriguing to see where these lads take them. A risky, but refreshing approach. When you look at the more contemporary cash-driven approach of relegation rivals QPR, I know which one I’d like to stay up.

The match, however, should have been over within ten minutes. Ivan Ramis made a very welcome return to the starting lineup and thumped in — albeit unmarked — a Jean Beausejour corner a couple minutes in. Latics piled on the pressure and had a couple half chances before Shaun Maloney was rather violently taken down in the penalty box. It was the second time this week that the Scotsman was denied a stonewall penalty. There was absolutely no question — no debate at all — that this was another penalty denied. It was, at this stage, adding insult to injury as Chris Herd had clearly handballed in the box minutes prior.

Villa’s response gave their crowd hope and they enjoyed the better of the play towards the end of the first half including a goal disallowed correctly for offside, but Latics’ refreshed back line held firm. When Emmerson Boyce combined with Arouna Kone for a goal of great quality in the opening moments of the second half, it was game over.

The Good:

Plenty to be pleased about today. Ivan Ramis could not have made a more encouraging return to the starting lineup. His emphatic finish not only put Wigan in the driver’s seat but added to the tension in the stands. He looked like he’d never been gone, confident and excellent with his distribution. His return also resulted in Boyce’s return to the right wing-back position from which he scored.

Arouna Kone has now scored two in a row, and that boost in confidence might just be the difference between a first touch finish or moment of hesitation against United in the home fixture on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, his improved form also coincides with a trip to the African Cup of Nations for most of January.

Shaun Maloney was a joy to watch at his former stomping grounds. Aston Villa supporters must have been wishing they could have him back. He was the modern playmaker exemplified in the first half in particular, popping up all over the pitch, creating and extremly unfortunate not to have won a penalty. That Martinez didn’t substitute him when 3-0 off speaks well of his fitness levels. That Villa didn’t heavily mark him as other sides have started to do speaks negatively of Lambert’s preparation.

Finally, a bit of luck with the fixture list. There probably couldn’t have been a better time to face Villa. A very valuable away win that allows for the possibility of a double over direct relegation rivals.

The Bad:

Penalty decisions and the continued cowardice of match officials when it comes to blowing the whistle in favour of Wigan Athletic. The fine Roberto had to pay earlier this season for criticism of match officials is becoming increasingly ludicrous in hindsight, but has effectively silenced him. What is happening to Wigan with these crucial decisions is astonishing. We all read through the lines when Martinez himself said after the Everton match that Latics have to “be even better” to compensate for the treatment they seem to get. But it is a sadly corrupt situation when Alex Ferguson’s assault on Mike Dean in the Newcastle fixture goes unreported by Dean himself — and Martinez, the most decent and principled man in British football is keeping his thoughts to himself for fear of punishment when his team is consistently wronged.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Didn’t have very much to do, but the clean sheet is much-needed.

Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 — Very solid, with one last ditch clearance sticking out in the memory.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Outjumped by Benteke a couple times but good otherwise.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 — Strong return from injury with a goal to boot.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Found space down the wing in the first half, faded in the second. Still not at his best, but enjoyed a bit of freedom with Boyce restored on the other side.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Scored a cracker and didn’t let the team down in any way. When he plays at wing-back, Beausejour is given more freedom on the left, as Boyce stays deeper. Latics are also stronger on set pieces.

James McCarthy: 6.5 — Did nothing wrong and indeed was involved in a lot of neat footwork in midfield, but we’ve come to expect a greater influence.

David Jones: 7 — Continued his fine run of form but went off with a knock.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — A joy to watch.

Franco Di Santo: 6.5 — Lovely ball for Kone’s goal, but it’s not just his goal-scoring statistics that are cause for concern — he doesn’t get in goal-scoring positions. Still, his hold-up play is second to no one’s.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Goal and assist for the Ivorian. Should have scored a second, but he’ll be pleased.

Subs:

James McArthur: Non-descript performance, kept it simple.

Jordi Gomez: Not enough touches to really have an impact.

Callum McManaman: Lively and unlucky with a good shot. This was a perfect match to give him some experience, but sadly only got about 8 minutes of it.