Can the Dream Come True Again?

Martinez

I don’t know if I will ever tire of watching the highlights of that FA Cup Final. I continue to be in love with the flowing football played by Roberto Martinez’s team and Ben Watson’s goal still brings tears to my eyes. It really was a dream come true.

Highlights can so often paint a false picture of a game. Watching the whole ninety minutes-plus can tell a different story.  But in this case the highlights were pretty close to representing a fair reflection of the match.

The key moments that stick in the mind? The superb interplay early on between Callum McManaman and Arouna Kone that almost led to an early goal for the youngster;  Joel Robles somehow getting his legs to Carlos Tevez’s shot that had “goal” written all over it; Shaun Maloney’s free kick  that hit the crossbar; Pablo Zabalata’s red card after McManaman went bursting through;  the celebrations after Watson’s goal.

The statistics showed that Latics more than matched their illustrious opponents. Possession was a close 52-48 in favour of City, both teams had 12 attempts on goal. Wigan had three corners, City had five. City had three yellow cards and a red, Latics had one yellow.

Incredibly for an underdog,  Wigan committed only five fouls (City had eleven). Latics’ football was sublime.

Who could have believed that a team built from bargain signings could compete on an equal footing with the City megastars? Will Wigan Athletic ever produce a display of such class again? How did Latics neutralize the threat of the star-studded midfield and forwards that City possessed?

Latics had been playing a 3-4-3 system, but an horrendous injury situation left Martinez short of defensive options. In the event he played midfielders James McArthur and Roger Espinoza as wing backs, with James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez in the midfield holding roles.  But he did have his first choice front three in Kone, McManaman and Maloney.

McManaman and Watson are the names that stick in the mind, as ‘Man of the Match’ and ‘Match Winner’, but it was the performance of the back three that was the cornerstone of Latics’ victory.  Antolin Alcaraz had come back from yet another injury to join Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner. The trio was absolutely superb in snuffing out the menace of Tevez and Aguero.

So what bearing does what happened in May have on Sunday’s sixth round tie at the Etihad?

City have moved on under Manuel Pellegrini and have scored forty three goals against nine in thirteen home matches in the Premier League so far this season.  That would not have happened in the regime of the more defensively-minded Roberto Mancini.  Moreover City thrashed Owen Coyle’s side 5-0 in a League Cup tie in September. Tevez has gone, but the Citizens now have Alvaro Negredo, Stefan Jovetic and Jesus Navas as potential threats together with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero.

It will be an emotional return for Uwe Rosler to the club where he made his name. However, City can count on no favours from the pragmatic German. Rosler has shown himself to be tactically astute and he will not want to play into City’s hands. More than anything he needs to nullify the threat of City’s midfield and forwards. Doubtless he will adopt the high pressing game that has become the hallmark of his tenure so far at Wigan. Stifling the service to City’s talented midfield will lessen the goal threat, but he also has to keep their forwards on a tight leash.

Rosler is not afraid to vary his team’s shape and at times he has used a backline of three central defenders. It might well be his best bet in this match. An experienced central defensive three of Emmerson Boyce, Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett is a distinct possibility. The defence becomes a back five with the wing backs – most likely James Perch and Jean Beausejour – dropping back. It is a tactic that has worked against City before.

Before the FA Cup Final the question being asked of Latics’ supporters was whether they would prefer Premier League salvation or an FA Cup win. Now it is a matter of promotion back to the big league or reaching the semi-final of the Cup.

Winning the FA Cup was the best thing that ever happened to Wigan Athletic.  But going out of the competition, with dignity, on Sunday would not be a tragedy with promotion a possibility.

The players that remain from the Wembley victory will be keen to confront City again. Roger Espinoza could not make the Honduras game yesterday because of injury, so might not make it. Jordi Gomez was ‘Man of the Match’ at Nottingham and will stake a strong claim for a place in midfield, with the excellent James McArthur and Chris McCann. If Callum McManaman is fit he will surely play upfront.  With Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard cup-tied, Marc-Antoine Fortune will probably start up front, unless Nick Powell reappears from injury

Although the odds are once again heavily stacked against Latics, only a fool would count them out.

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Return to Alcaraz, please

Despite the current glut of injuries at the DW, and the efforts of the competent and ever-improving Ivan Ramis, this young season’s biggest blow is nothing new. In fact, it is the same as last year’s — Paraguayan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz.

While the Martinez-era Latics have never had a particularly strong goal-scoring record, the team has achieved remarkable results when the back line has been fully fit. In contrast to Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa, who rarely miss a game, Alcaraz has sat out significant amounts of football. Put simply, when he has been out of the team, form has ranged from erratic to poor. His fitness problems (and later, suspension) last year coincided with the club’s worst ever run of form and kept him out until December. While results have been a bit better this season, the defence has been leaky without him and particularly weak in the air. His return should coincide with a tightening of the rearguard and positive run of results much as it did a year ago.

With two other centre-backs ruled out for the City fixture, his return cannot come soon enough. His performances in the early season pre-injury were strong — excellent in distribution and strong in his defending. He enjoys excellent understanding with Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa and Emmerson Boyce, who he has now played with for three years, and should do well with the also Spanish-speaking Ramis. More than a month ago, Martinez reported that he was back training with the team and approximately two weeks away from action. Little has been heard since.

The question is — assuming recoveries for Caldwell and Ramis — who will drop to the bench when he does return? Caldwell is the captain and leader at the back. Ramis is now vice-captain and has become an important player in a short amount of time. And Figueroa offers balance and tactical versatility with his ability to push wide as left-back or into the wingback position. Who would you drop?

Injuries and suspensions are likely to make this a non-issue. But with all three natural centre-backs out at present, it will be interesting to see how Martinez shifts his lines. A return to four at the back for the City fixture should not be discounted as the Spaniard used one in the corresponding fixture last year. Or will Lopez be given a chance alongside Boyce and Figueroa after impressing against Reading?

Wednesday may come too soon for Antolin, but his return can’t come soon enough.

Blackburn Rovers 0 Wigan Athletic 1: Great escape sealed by Alcaraz

Wigan Athletic will be in the Premier League for an eighth straight year, crowning a truly unbelievable run of results with an away win at Ewood Park last Monday. A draw may well have been enough from the Latics perspective, but Antolin Alcaraz’s late headed winner was fair reward for another display of cultured, confident passing in difficult playing conditions, in a venue that had not been kind to the Latics in years past.

Anything but a win would have spelled the end for Blackburn, a club in free-fall, but they seemed to have accepted their fate from the outset. This is a club in crisis from top to bottom. Injured and demoralized players, furious fans, inept management and clueless owners — however dire our season may have looked two months ago when we were relegation certainties, it never approach that sort of madness.

And so the first half was all Wigan, with Franco Di Santo and Victor Moses both going very close and Ali Al-Habsi only called into action to catch a stray chicken. If the Blackburn support deserves credit for one thing this season, it is for smuggling that chicken past security.  They did find their voices in the second half, however, and were unlucky not to be celebrating a penalty when Emmerson Boyce tangled with Junior Hoilett in the box. Indeed, there was a nervy period in that second half when Blackburn pumped the crosses in from every angle and Wigan rode their luck, but the initiative was swiftly regained in the final quarter and victory was sealed, ironically, off a set play header.

But you knew most of this already. Lets take this moment to celebrate a truly unbelievable couple months for the club.

The Good:

A fantastic away performance. Dominant in the first half, resolute in the second, and fit enough to win it late on a very heavy pitch. A goal from a corner. The team has become stronger at both attacking and defending set plays. Of the starting XI, only Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa were not Roberto Martinez signings. He has slowly but surely built a team of his own at Wigan. Congratulations to him and his players, whose commitment and skill have earned the best results and highest-level of performance in the club’s history, after a very difficult season.

The Bad:

It is never fun to watch another team and set of supporters go down.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Dealt well with the chicken, and made one or two important saves when the pressure was on in the second half.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Almost gave away a penalty but otherwise good.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Outstanding performance, capped off with the winning goal. His absence for most of the first half of the season was a huge factor in the team’s poor form.

Gary Caldwell: 8.5 — Captain fantastic was honoured with the Fans Player of the Season award in midweek, and truly deserves it. Solid again.

Maynor Figueroa: 8.5 — Honoured by his fellow players as their player of the year, a tremendous achievement for a player who has enjoyed his best season in a Latics shirt.

Jean Beausejour: 8.5 — Caused Blackburn trouble with neat footwork down the left, and supplied the cross for the winning goal.

James McArthur: 8.5 — Gets better and better, his passing is thoroughly efficient and neat, but he also has an eye for a through-ball when he gets forward. Really looking forward to watching his continued growth next season.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — The only thing he is lacking from his game is a goal or five. Unfortunately, as soon as he starts producing those, someone will snap him up. The complete midfielder.

Shaun Maloney: 8.5 — Another bright display by the little magician.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — They couldn’t handle him, but his finishing was not the best this time around.

Franco Di Santo: 8.5 — Decent game with some great build-up play, but missed a great chance in the first few minutes of the game.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: N/A — Might have gotten on the end of a beautiful right-wing delivery, but otherwise didn’t see too much of the ball. A likeable player, but how much longer will he be given to prove himself. A striker will surely be signed this summer following Rodallega’s departure.

WIGAN ATHLETIC 4 NEWCASTLE UNITED 0 – A VINTAGE DISPLAY FROM LATICS

Wigan Athletic once more played with confidence, style and determination, as they had against Manchester United a little over two weeks ago. This first half display with four spectacular goals completely blew away a 4th placed Newcastle team that had arrived full of confidence after 6 consecutive victories.

From the start the Jimmy Macs – McCarthy and McArthur – ruled the midfield, barely allowing the visitors a touch of the ball. This laid the foundation for the wing backs to play more like wingers and the forward players to slice holes in the Newcastle defence. The little genius, Maloney, was orchestrating it all from midfield and the end result was a fluid attacking style with more than a touch of class. Vintage football indeed!

The first goal arrived in the 13th minute when Moses got the back of his head to wing back Boyce’s cross for the ball to loop past Krul. The second arrived two minutes later when another of those beautiful curling crosses from the other wing back, Beausejour, was making its way towards Di Santo at the far post. The unfortunate Coloccini got in its way but the ball ricocheted to Moses who hit it home with aplomb. The third was a real gem with Di Santo putting Maloney through on the left. The little man raced inside to put the coolest of finishes past Krul with a low drive to the far post. Then as half time beckoned Di Santo showed us his superb technique in lobbing Krul, the ball reeling into the top left hand corner leaving the goalkeeper helpless. A breathtaking first half.

The second half could not live up to the first, with Newcastle coming more into the game. The dangerous Papiss Cisse (11 goals in 11 games for Newcastle, 37 in 65 previously for Freiburg in the Bundesliga) was to draw a fine save from Al Habsi and to hit the woodwork twice during that second half. Latics did have chances. Moses drew a fine save from Krul and Sammon almost scored after a great run, his effort being blocked practically on the line by Coloccini.

Latics had 57% of the possession, having 6 shots on target compared with 2 for the visitors. Wigan committed 15 fouls and Newcastle 12. Two yellow cards for Latics, one for Newcastle.

The Good
The first half performance was probably the most spectacular in Wigan Athletic’s history. This was no fluke, but more the result of a long process of building the foundations for future success. Over the past weeks Roberto Martinez’s vision has been put into practice by the players. Interesting that in a post match interview when asked what has been the basis for the recent successes, Shaun Maloney put it down to work rate. Latics now work really hard to get the ball back when they lose it. Moreover there are players making 30-40 yard runs on a regular basis. It is this increased work rate that means that the centre forward is no longer alone, but supported by team mates coming in from all directions. The change to the defensive trio and wing backs was the catalyst that helped the players change their mind sets and play to their strengths. A central defence that was leaky has now become a rock. Confidence now surges through the Latics’ ranks, in place of the fear that was present for so long this season.

The Bad
Following a performance like that – on the back of wins against Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal – Roberto Martinez has become a target for speculation among the media. Why would a manager who can produce teams that can play that kind of football want to continue to work on a shoestring at Wigan? Let’s hope that this speculation does not upset the momentum that the team has built up. Losses for QPR and Blackburn today make it increasingly likely that Latics will maintain their Premier League status.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 8 – Another good display.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 – Tireless in his efforts to support the attack and solid in defence.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 – In top form again. Looks a quality player.

Gary Caldwell: 9 – Superb yet again.

Maynor Figueroa: 9.5 – In the best form of his Latics’ career. His interceptions and powerful tackles have been so important over recent weeks.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – A complete player. What a January signing!

James McCarthy: 9.5 – Took the initiative from the start. Hugely energetic and technically gifted.

James McArthur: 9.0 – Superb yet again. Runs himself into the ground for his team. Put in lots of neat passes too.

Shaun Maloney: 9.5 – The little magician engineered most of Latics’ best moves. Took his goal superbly.

Victor Moses: 8.5 – Took his goals well and was a constant threat to the Newcastle defence.

Franco Di Santo: 9 – Another superb exhibition of leading the line. Brilliant goal.

Substitutes

Conor Sammon: – Once again gave 100%. Unlucky with a fine run in the final minutes.

Jordi Gomez: – Came on and fitted in seamlessly.

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.