History made, as final beckons for Wigan

facup-maloney

Wigan Athletic made history today after a professional performance at Wembley saw off Millwall to secure a spot in their first ever FA Cup final.

The 2-0 scoreline was probably a fair outcome given the number of chances created on either side, while the quality of the strikes outlined the gulf in class between the two sets of players. Shaun Maloney got things started when he met a gorgeous, floated cross from Arouna Koné in mid-air 25 minutes into the fixture. Callum McManaman, a real threat throughout, had earlier gone close with a rasping drive, while Jordi Gomez’s first time effort was excellently parried by Millwall keeper David Forde. The first half petered out with Wigan comfortably in cruise control.

The second half was a different story, as Millwall stepped up their effort to press high up the pitch, forcing mistakes out of the their opponents. A period of sustained pressure from the London side saw some last ditch defending from set pieces preserve Wigan’s lead, but it was the Premier League outfit that looked the more threatening from open play. McManaman, reveling in his key creative role out wide, tormented his marker time and time again, cutting onto his right foot to blaze over before crossing dangerously with his left foot just behind Koné. A delicious through-ball by Gomez with just over 10 minutes left put him in a great position however, and he made no mistake by classily rounding Forde and slotting home to celebrate the goal he thoroughly deserved.

The Good:

This was the best possible outcome. It was a job well done, with two excellent goals, a clean sheet, no yellow cards or injuries. A huge morale boost for a team that has now gone five matches undefeated and won six of the last nine. Wigan’s two little creators, Maloney and McManaman, made the difference.

The Bad: 

Today is not a day to pick at imperfections, but a day to enjoy, celebrate, and savour. With hope, the violence caught by television cameras in the Millwall supporter section did not lead to serious injury and was contained as supporters left the stadium.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Few Wigan supporters would begrudge his return to the starting lineup, despite a wobbly season. Joel Robles did nothing wrong and indeed looks a very promising young goalkeeper, but he was always likely to make way for the Omani international and club talisman before the end of the season. It was a fitting and kind reward for Ali’s service and standards in his time with the club that he could make his return at Wembley. The big question now is whether he retains his place for league play.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Solid defensive play with one important interception standing out. Has proven a good stand-in captain in Gary Caldwell’s absence and will be extremely proud if he retains the armband to lead the team out in the final.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — An excellent player who has made a huge difference since returning from injury. It is hard to imagine Wigan being involved in the relegation struggle this season had he been fit and available for the majority of the season.

Paul Scharner: 7 — A couple wobbly moments, but he made more crucial tackles and interceptions than anyone on the pitch. You could see what it meant to him at the end of the match — he’ll be making his second cup final appearance for Wigan (he is the only member of the current squad who played in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United seven years ago).

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Very solid and composed defensive performance, as has become his habit.

James McCarthy: 6 — Didn’t really assert himself on the game, but didn’t let anyone down and worked very hard as always.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Very involved, retaining possession in attack and making a significant amount of tackles and interceptions on the defensive side of things. His pass for McManaman’s goal was beautiful. Unlucky with a first time effort after a flowing move in the first half.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Good first half, capped by an excellent goal. Quiet in the second and eventually pushed out wide when Jean Beausejour was withdrawn — a position from which he has less impact on the game.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Not a bad game, but not his best either. Second time running he has been substituted early — possibly carrying a niggle?  That said, Wigan lost the midfield when he was withdrawn. He rarely loses the ball when in possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent, positive, brave performance, taking risks with his direct dribbling and powerful shooting. Took his goal brilliantly, and might have scored another couple but for a brilliant save by Forde and an overhit finish. Only made his first start for the club a couple months ago but is fast becoming a key creator for Wigan. Certainly offers something the team has been lacking since Victor Moses’ departure in the summer. Surely in with a shout for player of the tournament.

Arouna Koné: 7.5 — Very good, confident front-man play. Single-handedly created the first goal with a brilliant “sombrero”, turn, run and cross. Only had one real chance which Forde beat away with his feet. In good form.

Subs:

James McArthur — Brought on to give Beausejour a rest and help the team regain possession, but the substitution didn’t work. Not so much McArthur’s fault in particular, who put in his usual shift, but the team suffered an anxious patch before McManaman’s goal settled matters.

Angelo Henriquez — A strange substitution, with Franco Di Santo presumably sitting next to him on the bench. With the match just about settled at that point, you would think Martinez would have given a Wigan player the big-game experience, rather than an on-loan Manchester United striker who is likely to get plenty of it in the future. One must hope it does not have to do with the Argentine’s intentions this summer.

Advertisement

Wigan Athletic 2 Stoke City 0: Great escape on track as defenders lead the way

Wigan kept the dream alive with an emphatic victory over Stoke City on Saturday, although results elsewhere conspired to keep them in the bottom three. Once again it was a centre-back who dealt the killer blow, with Antolin Alcaraz providing the kind of assertive finish his more attacking teammates had failed to produce all season. The Paraguayan’s thumping header was just reward for his excellent performances of late.

Stoke’s direct style of play needs no introduction, so it was no surprise that Latics controlled possession early on — and indeed for most of the match. The surprise here was the sloppy defending on display from Pulis’ typically disciplined and tenacious men.

First, Franco Di Santo dispossessed  a sleepy Andy Wilkinson early in the game with a great burst of speed, only to be thwarted by Asmir Begovic in a one-on-one opportunity. Several minutes later, fantastic work from Emmerson Boyce and Victor Moses found Shaun Maloney, who tested the Stoke keeper once again with a firm left-footed volley.

The little playmaker is looking more and more comfortable in the advanced central midfield role, and was named man of the match despite being substituted with a substantial amount of game to be played.

Boyce and Moses were proving a handful for Marc Wilson and Matthew Etherington down Stoke’s left, and the best chance of the half was the result of their pressure. A driven ball into Di Santo was flicked beautifully wide, from which Moses played an intelligent low cross into the path of Jean Beausejour. So often the provider, the Chilean made a mess of the chance, miscuing what should have been a simple tap-in. The Chilean had endured a frustrating first half trying — successfully, but at the expense of a yellow card and ongoing confrontation — to contain Jermaine Pennant. His face — distraught —  at the half-time whistle said it all.

The second half started in much the same vein as the first, with Wigan applying pressure but unable to convert their chances. Dean Whitehead clearly handled in the box (twice, in fact) but no penalty was awarded. Just as the supporters were starting to think it was going to be another of those days, a bit of Maloney trickery freed Beausejour down the left, who played a beautiful first-time cross onto the on-rushing Alcaraz’s head. In a season seriously lacking headed goals, such a fine finish was a sight for sore eyes. You could see what it meant to this committed group of players in their celebrations.

Ben Watson was brought on for Shaun Maloney, who had put in an excellent shift but was tiring. Beausejour had another golden chance when the former Crystal Palace man’s floated cross found him unmarked at the far post — not an easy finish but a fantastic opportunity nonetheless. Stoke brought on Ricardo Fuller and Cameron Jerome, and Wilson Palacios minutes later, but only managed to muster a half chance well-cleared by James MacArthur. Jordi Gomez and Conor Sammon were both introduced to keep possession and run around energetically, respectively — but it was Victor Moses who would seal the three points in injury time, catching Andy Wilkinson dozing once again, nipping past the keeper, and tapping into the empty net.

The Good:

This was almost the perfect performance. Everyone on the pitch worked their socks off, played some good football, and deserved three points. Maloney has been a revelation since coming into the side with his inventive runs and passing — though possibly less silky on the ball, he is much more direct than Jordi Gomez. Antolin Alcaraz, like Gary Caldwell, has been excellent of late and took his goal brilliantly. The three centre-backs were excellent in coping with Stoke’s aerial threat throughout and deserved their clean sheet. The James’ in midfield were once again dominant. Victor Moses not only scored but showed he can deliver the intelligent killer pass, when he pulls his head up. Boyce and Beausejour had difficult defensive tasks but were involved — even if their finishing let them down — in attacking play. Full marks for Roberto, things have been coming together for some time now, but save the poor finishing, this was a near-flawless performance.

The Bad: 

It certainly appears that Wolves are doomed to relegation. But two other direct rivals, Bolton and QPR, achieved vital wins. QPR have now beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in their last two games and are growing in belief. They have some quality players. Bolton have enjoyed a boost in the last few weeks. So we remain in the bottom three. Margins are incredibly tight. Three difficult fixtures loom against Chelsea, Man United, and Arsenal.

Conclusions:

Chelsea are enjoying a good spell of form under caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo, but have a congested fixture list. Any points at Stamford Bridge would be a minor miracle if you look at the squads and statistical odds, but our form is good, the belief is there, and we should have a go at them. Manchester United remain the only team we have never managed a point from in the league, but it has been very close a few times at the DW. Last season, Wayne Rooney should have been sent off for elbowing James McCarthy in the face. He wasn’t, of course, but if fair refereeing were to prevail, we’d have a chance. Arsenal away tends to be a nightmare for us, but we must see what happens in those first two — and with results elsewhere — before attaching too much importance to it. The final stretch offers promise:  Newcastle home, Fulham away, Blackburn away, Wolves home. Lets hope the good form continues and we’re still in striking distance after these brutal next three fixtures. Crucial to our chances is that we do not lose our heads if things are going poorly in the next three fixtures — we can’t afford three-match suspensions for any key players.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Only touched the ball once or twice. Got an important fist to the ball early in the first half, but that was about it.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Excellent defensively, fantastically taken goal.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Accomplished performance marking Peter Crouch, who is at least a full head taller than him.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Did well. Perhaps he’ll be the next to pop up with a striker’s finish?

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Involved in Wigan’s best first half moves, linking up well with Victor Moses. Had a good chance in the first half but took a bad touch. That said, panicked a clearance that Jonathan Walters first-timed into the side-netting.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Interesting performance by the Chilean, who struggled at times with Jermaine Pennant and had to resort to a bit of professional fouling. But he stuck with him, nullified his threat, and still managed to get in goalscoring positions twice and provide the match-winning cross.

James McArthur: 8 — Did not put a foot wrong. Cleared Stoke’s only real chance in the second half. Superb tackling and closing down.

James McCarthy: 8 — One still wishes he would show a bit more of his attacking flair, but it shouldn’t take away from the strong, pacey and committed shifts he is putting in.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Always looking to create openings with the ball at his feet or a cheeky through ball, he has revitalized the side.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Took his goal very well, and should have had at least one assist to his name. It speaks to his outstanding fitness levels that he was able to chase the ball down on the midfield line, sprint towards goal, and finish as coolly as he did — all in injury time.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck away his chance. Once again, you can’t fault the lad for effort, or skill in his build-up play.

Subs:

Ben Watson: 6.5 — He was brought on to help the team regain and keep possession and largely, it worked. Almost made a mess of a clearance when Stoke attacked late in the second half.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Brought on in a defensive move to keep possession, but was played out on the right wing where he barely saw the ball. Did have the chance to make one deeply satisfying tackle though.

Conor Sammon: n/a — Can’t remember him touching the ball, but I was glad to see him come on for the last few minutes to help the cause with his workrate.

Aston Villa 2 Wigan Athletic 0: Punchless Latics suffer fifth consecutive defeat

Several weeks ago, I used a match preview to illustrate the comical gulf in financial resources between Latics and the rival of the day, Manchester City. I labeled that game a no-hoper, and the match obliged. As supporters, we were unhappy with the performance, but very few of us expected any other result. There are a growing number of teams like Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, that we just can’t compete with.

But if you polled most Wigan Athletic supporters, few would list Aston Villa in that category. Sure, they are a big club with good support and some financial backing. But they’ve been, over the years, the type of team we can beat, and indeed try to.

The daft thing about all of this is that Aston Villa are, albeit to a lesser extent, still light years ahead of Wigan in terms of spending and wages. This summer, they bought our best player, Charles N’Zogbia, and proceeded to leave him on the bench, where another of our former best players, Emile Heskey, would keep him company. Key players for us are not key players for them. (Although I do think N’Zogbia will probably go on to become a key player there eventually).

Are we expecting too much from — to put it bluntly — a poor team in the world’s richest league? At risk of sounding bonkers after the elaborate preface I’ve just given, I don’t think we are.

Because Wigan Athletic has always punched above its weight. We expect our boys to upset the odds, and they do year after year. It’s the club ethos. The fact that Latics had not lost away at Villa before Saturday was an astounding statistic given the above realities. So as I launch into this match analysis, keep in mind two things. First, as a supporter I’m very proud of what the club has achieved and continues to achieve against clubs with greater resources. But second, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing better than we are.

Match Highlights

Latics actually started this one brightly, with plenty of possession and some attacking intent, without actually creating any clear chances. Roberto opted for a similar lineup to that of the second half against Tottenham, with Emmerson Boyce returning at right-back, Figueroa partnering Caldwell in the middle, and Van Aanholt out left. Ronnie Stam lined up as what can only be described as a defensive winger on the right, with Victor Moses on the left and Franco Di Santo up top. The usual suspects played in midfield: Watson, McCarthy and Diame.

Against Spurs, the Ronnie Stam experiment was designed to provide extra defensive cover on the left flank where Gareth Bale was causing problems. It worked to some degree before Gohouri’s red card, and seemed a reasonable approach to keep Villa’s most dangerous player, Gabby Agbonlahor, in check. But as Latics grew more comfortable in possession, they got caught out of position, and when Agbonlahor cut in from the wing in a one-on-one situation with Gary Caldwell, we knew what the outcome would be. Caldwell had been given a yellow card for next to nothing minutes prior, which probably discouraged a professional foul, but credit where it’s due, Agbonlahor produced an absolute rocket of a finish past Caldwell and Al-Habsi.

Latics only created one chance in the first half, and it fell to Franco Di Santo after Victor Moses had broken from midfield, panicked and almost scuffed his pass to the Argentine, who shot low and just wide. With his strength and speed, Moses probably could have gone on his own, but the man’s confidence is low and you can tell.

The second half began with another good effort from Agbonlahor, who again cut in from the left to curl an effort past Al-Habsi, skimming the post in the process. Emmerson Boyce, back from injury, was visibly tiring and would continue to struggle with the Villa striker As the match went on. Barry Bannan had a good long range effort tipped over the bar, before Franco Di Santo, against the run of play, took matters into his own hands. On a mazy run, he slipped in between several Villa defenders and found himself one on one against the keeper when he was clearly clattered by Alan Hutton. Mark Clattenberg and his haircut, both poor all match, the former favouring the home side, ignored it, and minutes later the game would be over.

Bizarrely, Martinez introduced James McArthur as a right-wingback in place of Ronnie Stam. If he was looking for pace to help Boyce deal with Agbonlahor, McArthur was clearly not the man for the job. The Scot was caught in possession and found himself chasing Agbonlahor, who is about seventeen times faster than he is, and also breezed past Boyce to deliver an excellent cross for Darren Bent’s goal.

Then Shaun Maloney was introduced at the tip of the diamond in attacking midfield, and chances started to come. First, Victor Moses slipped in a cheeky through ball which Maloney just failed to make good contact with. Ben Watson fizzed a corner straight through the entire Villa defense, with Gary Caldwell a whisker away. James McArthur whipped a delicious low cross just begging to be tapped in, but no one was on the end of it. Hugo might have, or Sammon. Even Boselli.

But it wasn’t to be.

A Neutral Would Say

Wigan pass it around a lot but don’t have anyone who can stick it in the back of the net. Villa have the opposite, but do look tough to beat under McLeish.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 8 —  Slightly out of position for first goal, probably a result of watching Agbonlahor’s highlight reel in which he curls most of his effort far post. But he kept Latics in the game with a series of outstanding saves, to Darren Bent in the first half, then Bannan and Petrov later on.

Emmerson Boyce: 5 — Tough match for him. Got caught far up the pitch on the first goal, and was then outpaced for the second. Agbonlahor was excellent and Boycey was his main victim. But it was good to have him back, he’ll be important in the next few games.

Gary Caldwell: 5.5 — Hard to grade the captain. He’s been playing in makeshift defenses. It wasn’t his best game, but not his worst either. Most of the danger came from the flank.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Not a long term solution at centre-back. Sometimes looks very good, other times completely out of position. Darren Bent was unlucky not to have scored in the first half.

Ben Watson: 6.5 — Latics did enjoy some excellent possession, much of which was down to Ben. Rushed a pass on a breakaway that might have led to a real chance. Finally delivered one excellent corner, though the rest of his efforts were poor (and Latics had a lot of corners, at least ten).

James McCarthy: 6.5 — His energy levels were great, covering a lot of grass and working very hard defensively. We finally saw a glimpse of the old James when he delicately chipped a ball to Franco Di Santo in the second half. More of that please.

Mo Diame: 6 — Quiet one for Diame, ineffective in attack, but contributed toward good possession.

Ronnie Stam: 6 — Did fairly well in the first half down the right flank although he was nowhere to be seen in the buildup to the goal. Substituted in second half.

Victor Moses: 6.5 — What a shame one of those crossbars or posts had not been a goal earlier in the season. Looks low on confidence but still a threat. Sadly, his finishing was poor once again. Played one excellent through ball for Maloney that could have been a goal.

Franco Di Santo: 7.5 — Worked tirelessly and almost created something out of nothing for the penalty that wasn’t. All he lacks is poacher’s instinct and finishing to poke away those crosses.

Subs:

James McArthur: 5.5 — Every now and again he shows his quality, but his lack of pace is a problem. Roberto seems very loyal to him, but there are better options on the bench.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — Looked bright and inventive. Finally, someone who is looking for that incisive pass, a one-two, making runs into the box. Would be great to see him in the starting lineup, eventually with Rodallega in it as well.

Conor Sammon: 6 — Didn’t have much time. Would like to see Di Santo out wide, with Conor as centre-forward.