Expecting the unexpected

Wigan - down, but not out.

Wigan Athletic – down, but don’t count them out.

Aston Villa’s amazing 6-1 scoreline against Sunderland last night was certainly unexpected. One single result has lifted the midland club level on points with both Newcastle and Sunderland, only one point behind Norwich who they play on Saturday. Moreover their previously poor record for goal difference has been transformed by the +5 they got last night.

Villa’s win will send shock waves among Wigan Athletic supporters, who were hoping their team could overtake the midlanders. However, Latics are now 5 points behind the pack that Villa have now joined. Things are looking pretty grim.

Around the 85 minute mark of the Tottenham game on Saturday,  I was beginning to believe in my heart that Latics were going to come away with the three  points. Wigan’s second half display was quite superb. A wonderful goal from Callum McManaman had put Latics ahead. Roberto Martinez’ tactics were spot-on and Tottenham just didn’t look like scoring.

However, my head told me something different and I had to brace myself for what was to follow. Could Wigan keep up this vast effort  in those tired closing minutes? Stifling a Tottenham team brimming with talent is a not easy and takes its mental and physical toll.

Latics supporters have come to expect the unexpected from their team and Tottenham’s lucky late goal was probably not a surprise to many of them. So many times this season Latics have not had luck on their side and they have come away short-changed.

Despite much focus being on Aston Villa as relegation rivals, Roberto Martinez has constantly said that other teams will get dragged down into the fray. Let’s hope he is right. At the moment Wigan just do not have enough points, but with good results in the next two matches against West Bromwich and Swansea they can narrow the gap.

Maynor Figueroa’s injury in the Tottenham game will put him out for the rest of the season. A bitter pill for Latics to swallow, given that they were already without key central defenders, Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis.

Martinez resisted the urge to put in Gary Caldwell, when the Honduran went off injured. His decision to put in the faster Ronnie Stam proved to be tactically justified, as Tottenham’s speedy forwards were repelled. However, Caldwell will surely return for the upcoming matches, when a back three is likely to be used.

Things are looking bleak. But with Wigan Athletic, one can continue to expect the unexpected. Wigan may be down, but don’t count them out at this stage.

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Down to the last match again?

Leaguetable

‘Remember that our last game is against Aston Villa at home. It could easily go to the last day of the season.’  These were the words of Roberto Martinez in a recent interview.

Wigan Athletic are not strangers to the concept of surviving on the last day of the season. They have done it twice before.

Goals from Paul Scharner and David Unsworth helped Wigan keep afloat in 2006-2007, when they won their last game at Sheffield United. The win put them level on points with the Blades, but Wigan prevailed by a margin of just one in goal difference. In 2010-2011 it was Hugo Rodallega’s header that gave them a win in their last game at Stoke, although a draw would have sufficed, given the eventual results of other teams at the bottom.

Is it again going to come down to that last match? Or will it be all over before then?

Monday night’s 3-0 defeat for Aston Villa at Old Trafford opens up that possibility. Wigan Athletic – with a  match in hand – have 31 points to Villa’s 34. Reading and QPR remain anchored at the bottom with 24 points. If either club were to win all of its remaining four games – most unlikely, but not impossible –  it could reach 36 points.

The probability is therefore that Reading and QPR will get relegated, together with either Latics or Aston Villa. However, there  remains a possibility  that one of those clubs currently on 37 points – Sunderland, Stoke and Newcastle – could also go down if their last four matches were to produce no yield. Very unlikely, given the squads at their disposal, but stranger things have happened.

Aston Villa’s next game is scheduled for Monday at Sunderland, when they will play knowing the result of Latics’ game with Tottenham on Saturday. If Wigan could manage a positive result against Tottenham it would put a lot of psychological pressure on Villa prior to the Sunderland game. Conversely a defeat on Saturday, followed by a win for Villa,  would open up a 6 point gap, which would be hard to surmount.

Martinez  has talked about the need for Wigan to win three out of their last five matches, not an easy matter when two of those are against teams in the top five. But not impossible.  If Wigan and Villa were to eventually finish level on points it would get down to goal difference. Latics currently hold the advantage at -23, compared with Villa’s -27.

For the moment Wigan are waiting anxiously to get an assessment of the damage done to Antolin Alcaraz’ hamstring, which caused him to limp off at West Ham after only 15 minutes. The return of the big Paraguayan after a long-term groin injury has really helped shore up a leaky defence. A prompt return from Alcaraz could make a big difference to Latics’ chances of survival.

The pressure is on for all the teams in the relegation zone, but especially so for Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa. It is the time of the season where you are looking for a little luck to go your way. Just one lucky goal or one bad refereeing decision could tip the balance.

Given the horrendous injuries Latics have had this season they are due some luck. It’s never too late for a bit of luck to come your way.

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It’s them or us – a look at the Premier League relegation battle

table

How soon optimism can dissipate. A momentous 3-0 win at Reading had given Wigan Athletic a real boost and lifted them out of the relegation zone, albeit on goal difference. Then came that painful 4-0 home loss to Liverpool, a horror movie in the making. Can Wigan Athletic pick themselves up, repair their wounded morale and get back into the fray?

The next game for Wigan is one that no realist would expect them to win. The FA Cup 6th round tie at Everton is likely to be largely attended by Latics’ second string. The cup competitions have been the saving grace for Wigan this season, with heartening performances that have helped lift morale within the club. However, Roberto Martinez would be unwise to risk senior players for an FA Cup tie, given Wigan’s precarious league position. If Everton put out their strongest lineup the scoreline could prove scary. The prospect of two consecutive really bad results looms.

That kind of scenario could pose a real challenge for morale within the club, but history shows that Wigan Athletic are resilient. Even after the most disturbing of horrow shows they have shown the soldier’s ability in not looking back.

It’s tight this year. With 10 games to go it is possible for both Sunderland and Newcastle to get sucked into the relegation battle. Both lie 6 points above the relegation zone. However, Sunderland do have some quality and an experienced and capable manager in Martin O’Neill. Newcastle have even more quality players, including transfer window signings and it is unlikely they will get relegated. Norwich above them do not have as much quality, but they are two points ahead of the north east clubs. It would take a calamitous fall for the Canaries to be dragged into the mire.

We are therefore looking at the teams currently in the bottom five – a mini-league between QPR, Reading, Aston Villa, Wigan and Southampton, with the top two surviving.

Let’s take a look at the opposition for Wigan:

Queens Park Rangers won only their third game of the season last weekend, dragging Southampton back into the danger zone. Despite having quality players they have been woeful this season. However, with that kind of quality and a manager as seasoned as Harry Redknapp, don’t count them out. They were lucky to survive last season and fortune could smile on them again. They have yet to play 3 games against the bottom five five teams and 2 against the top five.

Reading looked poor and low on quality against Wigan, but what they lack in class is compensated by their workrate and determination. That spirit has helped them produce last ditch rescues in matches where they have looked down and out. They play 3 games against bottom five and 3 against the top five.

Aston Villa have gambled on youth and their inexperienced defence is very vulnerable. However, senior players such as Charles N’Zogbia and Gabriel Agbonlahor, together with the exciting young striker Christian Benteke pose an attacking threat. They play 3 games against bottom five and 2 against the top five. Their next two games are against QPR and Reading and failure to win at least one of those will put them under great pressure.

Southampton’s bubble is now starting to burst. They had been punching above their weight in lifting themselves out of the relegation zone. A positive, attacking team with a great disciplinary record they don’t deserve to go down. A lot will depend on their resilience. They play only one game against the bottom five and 2 against the top five.

Up to this point results between the “mini-leaguers” put Wigan in front:

1. Wigan Athletic – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W3 D0 L0 – 14 points (from 6 matches)
2. Southampton – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W2 D1 L0 – 13 points (from 7 matches)
3. QPR – Home W0 D2 L1 Away W1 D1 L0 – 6 points (from 5 matches)
4. Aston Villa – Home W1 D0 L2 Away W0 D1 L1 – 4 points (from 5 matches)
5. Reading – Home W0 D0 L1 Away W0 D1 L3 – 1 point (from 5 matches)

Much is going to depend on results in games played between the bottom five. Bad results in two or more of these matches could prove fatal for any of those teams, barring Southampton who only have one remaining, at Reading. The Royals also have home games left against QPR and Aston Villa.

Wigan Athletic have been in this position before and showed the resilience and mental strength to get out of it. Last year’s miraculous type of recovery is unlikely to happen again. It will be more a matter of grinding out results and keeping their heads above water. Wigan will face 2 games against the bottom five and 3 against the top five, a difficult run-in.

Latics fans will hope that survival will still remain a possibility when they face Aston Villa in their final match of the season at the DW Stadium. It would not be the first time that they reached salvation on the final day.

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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.

Wigan Athletic 0 Aston Villa 0: A point earned or two points lost?

Wigan Athletic’s second 0-0 of the season, in what was probably the most predictable result on the fixture list, seems to be sparking far more debate than the rather more colourful affairs we’ve graced. Was this a missed opportunity after another frustrating display of poor attacking play, or should we be grateful for the point, the clean sheet and move on?

The match itself was not one for the neutral. Latics controlled possession, passing commendably despite a torn up pitch (thanks rugby), but didn’t create anything of note. Villa waited patiently, breaking dangerously through Robbie Keane and Darren Bent, but found Al-Habsi at his best. Jean Beausejour’s contribution down the left has resulted in an increased volume of crosses, but there remains no one with the striking instincts, or heading ability, to meet them. Wigan logged 14 corners without coming close to scoring from them. Is Lee McCulloch available?

Victor Moses’ head was sadly stuck firmly in the “down” position, at one point failing to realize there was no one was within 30 yards of him before booting in a cross down the right wing. Hugo Rodallega came on and was immediately involved in Latics’ two best chances — the first, a neat turn and decent left-footed curler that sailed over the bar; the second a difficult half volley after Victor Moses appeared to have been felled in the penalty area. For all Franco Di Santo’s exemplary running around and skill on the ball, he never seems to get himself into these types of situations.

Aston Villa delivered a classic Alex McLeish performance, collecting yellow cards for cynical fouls and hoping for a piece of magic from one of their talented front men, or a lucky bounce from a set piece. Latics may yet go down but at least we don’t have to watch that sort of muck.

Despite seven minutes of injury-time — as a result of Darren Bent’s injury and the Gods of football plea for a goal — it ended 0-0.

The Good:

Our third clean sheet of the season. Gary Caldwell, Antolin Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa all had excellent games. Despite being a virtual spectator in the second half, Ali Al-Habsi made two fantastic saves in the opening 15 minutes that eventually earned the side a point. A lot of credit for the recent defensive improvement must also go to James McArthur, who put in another inspirational shift of effort and graft in midfield. It was a sign of how highly his contribution is valued that Roberto opted to keep him on the pitch, instead asking James McCarthy to make way for Mo Diame in the second half. Jean Beausejour deserves a mention for his increasingly influential performances down the left. Before his arrival, Latics were depending on Ronnie Stam’s crosses from the right. While many of us would like to see them both on the pitch, it has to be said that Emmerson Boyce’s inclusion has also contributed to Latics’ best defensive performances of the season of late.

The Bad:

The final third of the pitch. Jordi Gomez and Victor Moses, the men charged with creating chances, had bad games. Jordi wasn’t noticeably bad, he just wasn’t very noticeable. Which is bad. Victor Moses was involved in Latics’ most promising play but was again let down by hesitancy or that frustrating final pass. Jordi enjoyed a fantastic run of form over the Christmas period, while Moses is up and down. We need one of them to deliver in games like this. It’s the type of game that Charles N’Zogbia might have won for us last year. A Jordi free-kick or a bit of Moses magic is due. Incidentally, the aforementioned N’Zogbia spent most of the afternoon on the Villa bench. What a waste.

Two points lost or a point gained?

While it does heap pressure on the next fixture, I don’t see this draw as a big problem. Of the next three, Latics probably need 6 points: Swansea (h), Norwich (a), and WBA (h). Results elsewhere this weekend were favourable. Most encouraging was QPR’s loss to Fulham. QPR still face the league’s top six clubs in their remaining 12 games. Blackburn and Bolton both lost to strong opposition, but a more important loss to Blackburn came in the form of Christopher Samba’s transfer to Russia — an important player and leader for them. Wolves may have gotten a point at Newcastle but failed to appoint a new manager of any pedigree, and still look in deep trouble. Latics’ next match against Swansea is pivotal. If we fail to win that one, we are going to be in need of points at places like Anfield or Stamford Bridge, not a situation we want to put ourselves in. We hit the post three times last time we played Swansea. A bit of luck this time could see us out of the bottom three.

A Neutral Would Say

Villa had a couple chances but were an eyesore. Latics deserved a goal for all their possession, corners, and pressure.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 8 —  Didn’t have much to do, but kept things even with two excellent first half saves.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Looking very strong in recent matches.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Excellent performance again from the captain.

Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 — Doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but makes a lot of headed clearances. Neither Caldwell or Alcaraz are particularly tall as far as centre-halves go, his height is important.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — A wonderful moment for Boycey after he broke the club’s record for Premier League appearances (146), previously held by Paul Scharner. But it was one of his weaker performances, it looked like his legs were failing him. He did make one crucial second half tackle to block a Robbie Keane shot, however. While Ronnie Stam offers a more exciting option at right wing-back — and certainly a fantastic option from the subs bench — Boyce’s experience, defensive solidity, and occasional burst forward might make him a safer bet in the starting lineup for the run-in.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Neat in possession, the Chilean played some nice balls into the box, and didn’t shy away from his defensive work either.

James McArthur: 8 — Great tackling, simple distribution, he is becoming a leader by example.

James McCarthy: 7 — Similar to James McArthur, but has more to offer offensively.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Not creating enough.

Victor Moses: 6 — Needs to be more decisive when he’s in the box with a shooting opportunity. And more thoughtful when he’s outside the box, looking for a teammate.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Did his job well, worked very hard, but wasn’t really anywhere near the score sheet.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 7 — Immediately involved in Latics best chances. A neat turn and left-footed shot, following by a half volley after Moses went down in the penalty area.

Mo Diame: N/A — Would like to see him back in the starting lineup against Swansea.

Albert Crusat: N/A — Came on late.