Wigan Athletic 1 Fulham 2: Finishing lets Latics down

We suspected in our match preview that this would be battle of the strikers, so the sight of Franco Di Santo in a suit on the sidelines was a damning one. Fulham’s expertly taken goals stood in sharp contrast to a handful of clear opportunities Latics squandered before Arouna Koné halved the margin in stoppage time.

In fairness, Roberto’s men were a bit unlucky. Jordi Gomez hit the crossbar with a vicious left-footed strike, Ivan Ramis had a header tipped onto the bar by Mark Schwarzer, who always reserves his best for the DW. Arouna Koné latched onto a quick-thinking through ball from Shaun Maloney but took a heavy touch and lost the chance. Mauro Boselli was presented with a golden opportunity after good work from James McCarthy, but dinked wide. El que no los hace los ve hacer. If you don’t take your chances, you’ll watch them being taken. Just as Latics seemed to be turning the screw, Bryan Ruiz somehow managed to hold on to the ball at the top of the box long enough for Damien Duff to find space, take a touch and effectively seal the three points with a clinical strike. Despite the introductions of Callum McManaman and Ryo Miyaichi, both positive and adventurous, it took Latics just too long to get one back.

Hugo Rodallega has rightly been praised for his muted celebrations, after he finished off a Dimitar Berbatov floater in the first half. The Colombian was energetic throughout, while the Bulgarian oozed class. Latics’ overall performance could be summed up as inconsistent — the passing at times sloppy and unambitious, at others incisive and sharp. Ben Watson, handed a rare start to allow McArthur time to heal from his ongoing back problems, exemplified this. His range and quality of passing is excellent. But he also gives the ball away and offers less steel. He created some of the best openings but frustrated at times too.

Speaking of steel, Antolin Alcaraz has been sorely missed. Ivan Ramis shows all signs of being an excellent long-term signing for the club, but the understanding developed between the Alcaraz-Caldwell-Figueroa axis took years to build. The Paraguayan’s absence has coincided with two of the softest defensive performances since January of this year. There has been a lack of intensity in the past couple matches. Roberto has acknowledged as much, and one suspects that the return of the tireless McArthur, Di Santo — and hopefully Alcaraz — will correct that.

All in all, a bit unfortunate. The Lee Probert sandwich was a highlight. But it’s time to get some more points on the board.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7.5 — Back to form after a troubled second half at Old Trafford. Made some good saves.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — A welcome aerial threat on set pieces. Defense was wobbly throughout, though.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — An off-day for the normally reliable captain. Out-jumped by Rodallega for the first goal. Subbed off in the second half.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Quiet in possession and attacking thrust. Duff was unmarked for the second goal.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Wasn’t used much on the right, although he is clearly a target for far-post crosses from the left. Missed one such opportunity in the first half, heading wide.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Got into decent positions and floated a few useful crosses into the box, though some of them felt more hopeful than purposeful.

Ben Watson: 6 — At times incisive and inventive, but also wasteful. Why was he taking a direct free-kick when Maloney and Jordi were standing next to him?

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Had a good game, unlucky not to have played a big part in an equalizing goal after Schwarzer saved his second half effort, only for Boselli to missed the tap in.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — As ever, Latics most inventive player. Played a fantastic through-ball to Koné when it was still 1-0 that would have evened things up.

Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Unlucky to hit the post with a fabulous effort, he does drift into goalscoring positions, but also sometimes slows down attacks but turns backwards or sideways.

Arouna Koné: 6.5 — Took his goal well, and showed on a couple occasions the tremendous burst of pace he possesses. Looks a good signing. Shame he couldn’t finish his one-on-one.

Subs:

Mauro Boselli: Only had one chance, but missed it unfortunately.

Callum McManaman: Positive, ran at people and played his part in the goal.

Ryo Miyaichi: Saw a lot of the ball in his minutes on the pitch. His final pass needs refining but bags of potential.

Wigan vs. Fulham: Battle of the strikers as Hugo returns

Wigan’s record Premier League goalscorer Hugo Rodallega returns to the DW Stadium this weekend with his new club, but most eyes will be on his illustrious strike partner, Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian notched his first two goals in a Fulham shirt in the 3-0 win over West Brom, while Hugo hit the post from three yards out, something he specializes in. The Colombian has already amassed more shots per minute than any other striker in the league — it is no wonder Mauro Boselli didn’t get any service playing between Hugo and Charles N’Zogbia. But the reception should be warm for a player who worked his socks off in that lone striker role, scored some very important goals, and developed a warm relationship with the Latics support in his years with the club.

Interest should not be fully reserved for Fulham’s strikeforce, however, as Roberto came out with a public promise of playing opportunities for Boselli yesterday. Franco Di Santo has been excellent with two brilliant finishes in four matches, really beginning to fulfill his huge potential; Arouna Koné is still adapting but has pedigree and looks a little sharper with his touch as the days go by.

Assuming Antolin Alcaraz is not yet ready to return to action, Roberto should be able to field the same XI as he did at Old Trafford. But he has options if he is looking to mix things up. Home games like this where we would expect to control possession should theoretically be ideal for Boselli, with crosses flying in from both sides. Ryo Miyaichi looks fast and skillful and offers something closer to what Victor Moses did. There is cover in midfield, though it is hard to imagine any interference there.

Aside from Swansea, whose style of play was instilled by Roberto long before Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup came along, Martin Jol’s Fulham have become one of the more pleasant teams to watch. They’ve lost the excellent Moussa Dembele, playmaker-in-chief Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey. But if fit, Bryan Ruiz is a very exciting player behind the front two of Rodallega and Berbatov. New left winger Alexander Kacaniklic looks lively and has already contributed goals and assits, while Damien Duff has had an effective start to the season on the right. Steve Sidwell has been waiting for regular football for years and now has it. He will provide steel in midfield, though he can play a bit too. And the defense is well established, with Haangeland and Hughes, and Schwarzer behind them always difficult to beat. They were the one team we didn’t outplay in the fantastic run-in last season.

So a tricky but intriguing encounter on the cards. The good news is that both Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson have moved on and therefore cannot score against us anymore — for Fulham, anyway. The bad is that Berbatov has a very decent record against us, while Hugo has scored a few at the DW as well. Lets hope this is a day for Latics’s stikers to rise up and keep them in the shadows.

Manchester United vs. Wigan: Will jet lag tell?

One of the problems with a global recruitment policy as far flung as Wigan’s — Oman, Japan, and Honduras for a start — is that when international break comes round, half of the starting XI are likely to be jet lagged for the ensuing Premier League match.

Latics famously under-performed in the home loss to Swansea last season after players like Maynor Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz had only landed in Manchester a day before the match. This year, ahead of the always daunting trip to Old Trafford, Roberto has again made the point that it is extremely difficult to prepare for a match without knowing who you have at your disposal.

Players like Antolin Alcaraz have played two matches in the past week, sandwiched by two day-long trips to the other side of the world, and will likely need — but not get — two full days to recover. Even if they survive the 90 minutes, proper rest and recuperation is never achieved.

Manchester United supporters might point to similar troubles, but replacing a tired Luis Antonio Valencia with Ashley Young or Nani is a bit different than, say, Adrian Lopez on for Antolin Alcaraz.

The Paraguayan (groin) is one of two major doubts for the Latics going into the fixture, with Jean Beausejour the second (hamstring). If Alcaraz misses out, we’ll expect to see the Ramis-Caldwell-Figueroa trio that figured against Stoke at the back. If Beausejour doesn’t make it, Maynor Figueroa will be pushed forward into the wingback position. If neither are available, the beneficiary will likely be David Jones at left wingback. The midfield should be the standard Scottish/Irish diamond, with Di Santo and Koné up front. The only variation in the attacking third I can imagine is the more conservative addition of Jordi Gomez at the expense of one of the strikers. Or — you never know — the introduction of the lightning-quick Ryo Miyaichi for added counter-attacking threat.

Manchester United, meanwhile, only have two international strikers to choose from after Robin van Persie picked up a knock  playing for his country. Wayne Rooney is still sidelined thanks to that unfortunate encounter with Hugo Rodallega’s boots. They’ll have to rely on Chicharito Hernandez and Danny Wellbeck, which will undoubtedly feel quite a hardship.

The clubs live in different realities. Watching Wigan outplay and topple Ferguson’s side on that special evening last April was one the greatest football spectator experiences I can remember. They played with belief, desire and no shortage of skill. One suspects that the ultimate significance of said result will not be lost on United’s players or fans — and they’ll be looking to put it behind them this Saturday at Old Trafford. But the gap on the pitch narrows each time these two teams play each other. If Latics can retain that belief and sin miedo attitude, a first result at Old Trafford is possible.

Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 1: Tired Latics beaten at the death

Fresh from earning what were probably the two best results in the club’s history, Wigan Athletic this time succumbed to a late 2-1 defeat against bogey team Fulham.  Though organized and well drilled, Roberto’s men were visibly tired and lacked the verve of recent performances.

The loss would not have been quite so damaging had QPR, Blackburn and Bolton not all picked up points (3, 3 and 4 respectively) in their fixtures. The good news is that Aston Villa are now well and truly involved, sitting only two points above the Latics with three games to play.

The early calf injury to Franco Di Santo was a warning. Roberto had opted to keep the same XI that performed so well against Arsenal, prioritizing momentum over freshness. After all, how can you drop a player after their involvement in back-to-back wins over Man United and Arsenal? But it was clearly a match too many. Even James McArthur looked tired and was eventually substituted in the second half.

Still, Latics were hard to break down and managed to take a surprise lead through an Emmerson Boyce thunderbolt from the edge of the box, his first of the season. Within minutes it was level, however, when the impressive Pavel Pogrebnyak struck a venomous shot through three Wigan defenders into the bottom corner of the net. Strong Fulham pressure ended in two clear scoring chances bouncing off the post, before Boyce gave away a cheap free-kick, from which Philippe Senderos headed home in the last minute of regular time. With Victor Moses marked out of the game, Latics struggled to create anything of note going forward.

The Good:

Despite the result and performance, Latics were hard to beat and almost came away with a point against one of the in-form teams in the league.

The Bad:

Franco Di Santo’s injury was a shame, given his strong form of late. Conor Sammon is a likeable player, but doesn’t have his skill-level. Perhaps a chance for Hugo Rodallega to make a final, crucial contribution to the club that gave him his big chance?

Battle on:

QPR delivered another upset against Spurs, but are level on points with Latics and must play Chelsea and Man City away, and Stoke at home. Their giant-killing has come at home, and it really is hard to imagine them coming out of those matches with more than 4 points. That said, Chelsea are likely to be exhausted after 4 matches in 9 games, and playing most of that grueling Barcelona affair with ten men.

Blackburn won their absolutely-must-win fixture against Norwich, but also face two extremely difficult trips to Spurs and Chelsea. And of course, the home fixture against us.

Bolton unfortunately beat Aston Villa last night, which I admit I didn’t see coming however bad Villa have been. They, along with us, have the most favorable fixtures of the teams involved. Sunderland and Stoke away — neither easy, but both against mid-table teams with little to play for — West Brom and Spurs at home.

Aston Villa look very poor at the moment and have an interesting last three games: West Brom away, Spurs at home, and Norwich away. They could win any of them, but in current form could lose them all too. A wildcard in the fight, but we’re glad they’ve joined the fun.

Wigan – Newcastle is a mouth-watering affair. The Geordies have some magical players in top form — Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Cisse have been a joy to watch. Demba Ba and Cheik Tiote are not half bad either. They sit three points clear in fourth place and are chasing an unlikely Champions League berth. All to play for. I feel a draw would be a good result for Latics in this one. If Blackburn and QPR lose to their top tier opposition, the point should be enough to ease pressure on that away Blackburn fixture.

Wolves, of course, are down already. But they will be playing for pride, under no pressure, on the last day of the season.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not at fault for the goals but didn’t make many saves either.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7.5 — Solid.

Gary Caldwell: 7.5 — Solid.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Cool under pressure.

Emmerson Boyce: 7.5 — Scored a fantastic goal, but gave away a needless foul that led to the winning goal.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Tired.

James McArthur: 7 — Struggled to own the midfield as he has done recently. Though he still got more touches than anyone else.

James McCarthy: 6 — A bit absent in this one.

Jordi Gomez: 7 — Got into decent positions but his finishing let him down. Substituted for Shaun Maloney.

Victor Moses: 6 — Kept very quiet in this game. The downside of his excellent performances against the big boys is that he will be singled out for special attention for these last three matches.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Couldn’t get into the game, then went off injured.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: 8 — Lots of effort but no service.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Neat when he got it, but couldn’t create anything of note.

Ben Watson: 6 — Brought on to reclaim the midfield, but it didn’t work.

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2011-2012 Season Preview

Quiet Summer: It has been far and away the quietest summer in the club’s Premier League history in terms of transfers, with Charles N’Zogbia the only high profile player out (Aston Villa, 9.5 million) and Ali Al-Habsi the only high profile arrival (Bolton, 4 million). Several players have been released and a couple have come in on free transfers, more on that later, but the relative stability in the squad, particularly given their youth, can only be a good thing. As disappointing as N’Zogbia’s transfer fee was (when you consider Stewart Downing went for 20 million), he wanted out, and it should pay the wages for another year. Such is the unfortunate reality for a small, though fast growing club like Wigan. Attendances and shirt sales are not going to cover the wage bill until that stadium is full and the club shop ships outside the UK. But the young support base is growing, and growing up, so if the team can hang on to Premier League status on this business model, the future is bright. And with talents like James McCarthy, Victor Moses, and Mohammed Diame at the club, you can be sure there will be some big fees coming the club’s way for some time to come.

Roberto Stays: Despite the quiet summer on the player front, Latics were at the center of the one of the biggest summer stories when Roberto decided to turn down Aston Villa’s approach, saying his job was not done at Wigan. Having spent two seasons weeding out the misfits from the Bruce era (my words not his), imposing his style of play, planning for the future and vastly improving the reserve and youth teams, he wanted to stick around and see it through. It is very rare to see a player or manager in football display such loyalty toward a club, particularly one with limited financial resources. It is testament to the genuine relationship Martinez has developed with Dave Whelan and the club itself since his arrival in 1995 as one of the Three Amigos. Even back then, he spoke glowingly of Mr. Whelan.

Players Out: Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa), Stephen Caldwell (Birmingham), Antonio Amaya (Real Betis), Jason Koumas, Daniel De Ridder, Mauro Boselli (Estudiantes, loan)
Of the permanent departures, only N’Zogbia and Stephen Caldwell played a match last season. The big Scot stood in for his brother and Antonlin Alcaraz, and will be fondly remembered for his professional performances at centre back, but was always more a stop-gap than long-term solution. He’ll get a lot more football for Birmingham in the Championship. Expect young Spaniard Roman Golobart to take his place in the squad as fourth choice center-back, behind Caldwell Jr., Alcaraz, Gohouri. Mauro Boselli heads back to the club where he made his name in Argentina on a one-year loan after a disappointing season in England and Italy. I would love to see him return to Wigan and succeed, but it looks more likely he is on his way out.

Players In: Ali Al-Habsi (Bolton), Dave Jones (Wolves), Nouha Dicko (Strasbourg)
Bringing in Al-Habsi permanently will be hugely important if the team is to carry over its momentum from last season. Save for his one blunder at Man City last year, he was probably the best keeper in the league. The fans love him, and he seems to love being at the club. Money well spent. Dave Jones, released by Wolves after they failed to agree a new contract, could prove to be a very astute signing. A left-footed, cultured central midfielder, I could see him easily slotting into the midfield triangle in the attacking role usually occupied by either Mohammed Diame or James McCarthy, when needed. Here’s a cracker he scored for Wolves last year. Apparently he looked right at home in the 3-1 win against Preston. The Wolves fans love him. “Great footballer, nothing left to say” and “Good player with a nice creative streak, good delivery and an eye for goal” were comments on TeamTalk.com after he signed for Wigan. Finally, the unfortunately named Nouha Dicko, who has been on trial at the club in recent weeks and looks to be coming in on a free after Strasbourg were forced to release their players due to financial difficulties. We don’t know too much about him, except he’s a French 19-year-old forward (probably destined to play on one of the wings ala N’Zogbia/Cleverley last year), and Roberto describes him as he does Victor Moses — “a player with that rare special talent.” Lets hope he’s unearthed another gem.

Still Missing: Two forwards, or at least one. With both N’Zogbia and Cleverley gone, the team only has one natural player for that position, Victor Moses. I think we need at least one established modern winger/forward, and another promising player to come off the bench (perhaps that is Dicko, or Callum McManaman). There are still rumors about Sean Wright-Phillips, although one tends to think he will opt for bigger wages or “bigger clubs” in Bolton or Sunderland. Other rumors gone by are the Paraguayan Haedo Valdez and Tranquilo Barnetta, from Switzerland, Mexicans Pablo Barrera and Gio Dos Santos, all of whom would have been excellent but seem to have fallen by the wayside. Valdez wanted to stay in Spain, Barnetta suffered an injury, Dos Santos is probably too big a fish after his big summer at the Gold Cup and Copa America, and West Ham have held on to Barrera. Carlos Vela’s agent recently said he might be sent out on loan again and could be a good option. Watch this space.

Starting Lineup: Assuming James McCarthy is fit and Rodallega and Alcaraz are cleared after their summer exertions at the Copa America, I would assume Roberto will go with the same players that finished last season (with Moses in for N’Zogbia). Al-Habsi; Figueroa, Alcaraz, Caldwell, Boyce; Watson, McCarthy, Diame; Rodallega, Sammon, Moses. I could see him opting for Di Santo rather than Sammon based on pre-season match lineups.

Norwich Prediction: The starting lineup will be very similar to the XI that learned a hard lesson against Blackpool last season. I don’t think they will make the same mistake again. Newly promoted teams are very tough opponents in the first quarter of the season (Latics face all three of them in the first three matches). But Latics have a lot more quality than Norwich, and they know what to expect. Tight, but I think Wigan wins this one.

Season Prediction: After coming so close last season with N’Zogbia, it’s hard to say with any confidence that this season will be better without him. But I think it will. There is stability at the club. Young players coming through, improving. This time last season, the captain was injured, best player on strike, and there were a number of new faces, players who had never played with each other or in the English league. The team now has an established style, defensive consistency, and they work for each other. Plus the league is, in my opinion, less even. The top teams have strengthened but none of the promoted teams have the quality that West Ham or Birmingham had, and squads like Wolves and Blackburn remain unconvincing. Mid-tablers like Villa and Newcastle, that Latics will be targeting, look weaker. That said, the fixture list has been brutal. Playing the promoted teams in the first three fixtures is tough, but playing Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd in the month of December is criminal. We all know Wigan is not the most fashionable and doesn’t make the league or sponsors buckets of money, but the fixture list this year certainly smells fishy. So — I think it will be another battle, if less dramatic than last year. I expect a more consistent season, rather than a season of two halves. 15th. 13th if a top quality player like Wright-Phillips arrives.