Wigan vs. Norwich: Six-pointer at the DW

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If Wigan Athletic is a team in the ascendancy with four wins out of six, then Norwich is one fighting valiantly to arrest the opposite. After an amazing run of unbeaten games in late 2012, the Canaries find themselves just seven points clear of Latics in 12th place, having drawn five of their last seven matches.

Tellingly, all of those stalemates came against mid-table or relegation-threatened sides. All signs point to a loss of momentum for Chris Hughton’s charges, and if left to the Laws of Form, a victory for Wigan appears the most likely outcome.

Of course, it’s never that simple, and nothing shakes things up quite like an international break. Some players, most vocally Paul Scharner, have benefited from a two-week break. Internationals at both clubs, however, will have played two matches in the space of five days. People like Maynor Figueroa and Ali Al-Habsi were not only key performers for their countries in high stakes World Cup Qualifiers, but have had to recover from flights back from Panama and Australia and the jet lag that comes with it.

Enough has been written about Wigan’s post-international break struggles, however. There is a real opportunity at the DW this weekend, and there is a squad to achieve it. Many eyes will be focused on Callum McManaman, so influential in Latics’ two most recent victories. The last few weeks will have brought very mixed emotions for the young winger, after the ecstasy of scoring against Everton followed by the media witch hunt after his bad challenge on Massima Haidara. Glad that discussion is over. But it will be interesting to see how the player reacts. If recovered from his own injury, one would expect him to start. Roberto Martinez’s comments in the build-up to the match about his potential as a future England star should not only give him a shot of confidence, but hopefully minimize ill-treatment from the visiting supporters.

Given he has now fielded the same starting XI for consecutive victories over strong opposition, there is no reason to believe Martinez will not do the same tomorrow. This should mean another start for young Spaniard Joel Robles in goal, who looks increasingly likely to be permanent signing in the summer. He’ll — hopefully — be protected by a back four of Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Paul Scharner and Maynor Figueroa. James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez would continue in midfield, with Shaun Maloney ahead of them in a free role. McManaman and Beausejour should retain their places on the wings, while Arouna Koné will lead the line. This leaves Franco Di Santo, who partnered Lionel Messi in attack for a period of time in Argentina’s 1-1 draw against Bolivia, on the bench once again. As it does Ali Al-Habsi, captain Gary Caldwell, and James McArthur.

A win tomorrow would heap pressure on Southampton, Sunderland and Aston Villa, who are four, four and three points ahead of Latics respectively having played an extra match. It could also suck Norwich into the battle — although with 34 points already and home fixtures against Reading, Aston Villa, West Brom and Swansea, they should be fine.

More importantly, another win would make it five in seven for Wigan and fuel the belief that they can do it yet again.

Reading vs. Wigan Athletic: It’s us or them

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While it would be a bit extreme to label Saturday’s fixture against Reading a must-win, it is surely a must-not-lose. Neither scenario is arithmetically true, but if you take a good look at the surrounding teams in the league table — Reading simply has to be one of the three to go down if Wigan are to stay up. It’s a six-pointer, with even greater significance than the points lost or gained. Latics’ victory at Bolton this time last year not only kick-started their fantastic run of form, but sent Bolton spiraling towards the Championship.

So, no pressure then.

Recent loss at Tottenham aside, Reading find themselves in a rich vein of form — sixth in the Premier League form table after victories over Sunderland, Newcastle, West Brom and a creditable draw against Chelsea. Brian McDermott and super-sub Adam Le Fondre were named Premier League Manager and Player of the Month respectively, and spirits must be running high. They have developed a reputation for heroic comebacks and last-minute goals, both testament to their team spirit and fitness levels. It also speaks volumes of their home support. But you get the sense that they have been a bit lucky even if they’ve made that luck themselves through sheer desire — their goals tend to be scrappy. This is a team Wigan should be able to beat but as ever, it will depend on the defensive performance. If they can manage a win, Reading could slump back into 19th place, a cruelly deflating blow after their recent heroics.

From the Wigan perspective, Roberto Martinez’s decision to play a mixed team in the FA Cup instead of his customary second string approach means his team goes into the match with some positive momentum. Arouna Koné’s brace against Huddersfield should give him a shot of confidence, as will James McArthur’s cracker. The Scot has shown since the turn of the year that he can be a real attacking threat, a very positive revelation. Franco Di Santo was rested against Huddersfield but could return, while man of the match Callum McManaman continues to push for a start but may have to settle for a role as an impact sub unless Martinez opts for a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation instead of his customary 3-4-3. Jordi Gomez, who scored a hat-trick in the reverse fixture, will be hoping for a chance to increase his tally.

At the back, captain Gary Caldwell will likely return in place of understudy Roman Golobart, but his partners Maynor Figueroa and Paul Scharner should keep their places. Emmerson Boyce and Antolin Alcaraz are reportedly in contention for this game, although it’s safe to say only the former  is likely to be involved. A well-rested James McCarthy will return to midfield and his form is crucial to the club’s course over the final third of the season. Shaun Maloney, without a shadow of a doubt Wigan’s player of the season so far, will be hoping to add to his superbly well-taken goal against Chelsea against less-accomplished opposition.

It is always hard to quantify the value of experience in a football match or over the course of a season, but it most frequently boils down to keeping calm, making good decisions, and peaking when the time is right. Wigan Athletic are nothing if not experienced in these types of situations, while Reading are fairly fresh-faced. On current form and on paper, this should be a home win. But Wigan have done what’s necessary time and time again when it has mattered — particularly against direct rivals. You’d be a fool to bet against them.

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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.

Liverpool 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Captain Caldwell stars as Latics claim historic win

Wigan’s strong run of recent form finally yielded the three point return it deserved on Saturday, in the least likely of places, and from the least likely of sources. Captain Gary Caldwell was the hero with the sort of poacher’s finish Anfield-goers came to expect of Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen. Indeed, everyone looked a bit bemused when the Scot recovered from the initial shock of finding himself with the ball in the box to turn Andy Carroll the wrong way and coolly slot past Pepe Reina. The Scot epitomizes the the determination and grit that has been on display in the club’s recent matches and his strike was well worthy of its place in the history books.

Earlier in the game, his compatriot Shaun Maloney had put Wigan 1-0 up from the penalty spot. Martin Skrtel, a bad choice for a babysitter, thwacked Victor Moses across the chest and face as he was trying to head a looping Gary Caldwell ball over Pepe Reina. It was clearly a penalty, but the type of decision Wigan too frequently don’t get awarded away against the big boys. Maloney took his opportunity perfectly, blasting low and left to claim his first goal for the club.

Moses, meanwhile, spent about 10 minutes on the sidelines, concussed, before it was determined he would not return. Reduced to ten men, Latics were forced to weather some Liverpool pressure, with Ali Al-Habsi making two fantastic saves from Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard to keep things even before Albert Crusat was introduced to make numbers even again.

Kenny Dalglish must have done a fair bit of shouting in the dressing room at half time because Liverpool returned with urgency and dynamism. The second half had hardly gotten under way when good link-up play between Suarez and Gerrard led to an equalizer. Gerrard was in acres of space on the left when he squared for Suarez, who deposited the ball neatly into the same corner of the net Maloney had minutes earlier. Latics were shaken, and a pivotal moment would soon follow.

Suarez wriggled past Figueroa on the right wing, the Honduran tugged him back, earning a yellow card for his troubles. Steven Gerrard whipped in a trademark far post cross, which Martin Skrtel headed into the ground, over Al-Habsi, toward the Wigan goal. Luis Suarez ploughed into Gary Caldwell, ramming his knees into the Scot’s chest, and appeared to use his arm to send the ball across the line. Caldwell hit the ground, the ball went into the back of the net, and Liverpool celebrated. After a good 15 seconds of celebration, referee Lee Mason called the goal back, booking Suarez in the process.

The decision, once again, was clearly correct, but one suspects it might have gone differently at Old Trafford. The incident killed Liverpool’s momentum and let Wigan back into the match. Having struggled for possession in the second half, Martinez gambled by removing Jean Beausejour and introducing Ben Watson, changed the team’s shape to his more traditional 4-5-1. The tactical rethink was immediately effective, with Latics controlling possession for a sustained period before Caldwell struck the winner. It worked so well, in fact, that Latics went closer to a third through Conor Sammon, after a terrific diagonal through ball from Maloney, than Liverpool went to an equalizer.

Ali Al-Habsi was called to attention once or twice more but looked sharp. Exciting 17-year-old Raheem Sterling and his pace was a bright note for Liverpool but Wigan held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

The result, and the confidence and belief that should follow it. There was some sloppy passing in the first half, a backs-to-the-wall sequence at the start of the second half, but the defending was generally solid and four clear cut goal-scoring opportunities were created.

The Scots. Shaun Maloney and Gary Caldwell scored the goals and enjoyed strong performances. But James McArthur and James McCarthy (almost/arguably Scottish) have been instrumental to the Wigan revival of late. Their work ethic is second to none. Even Maloney, more of a flair player, showed he is willing to get stuck in with a lunging tackle in the build-up to the first goal.

The Bad:

Victor Moses’ selfish streak. Again, when presented with the opportunity to lay the ball off to a teammate for a tap-in, he decided to go it alone. That said — lets hope he recovers after his concussion,  there were no fractures or lasting effects, and we see him back on the pitch next week.

Conclusions:

Having spent the previous weekend peppering Ben Foster and West Brom’s goalposts only to emerge with a single point, this was a deeply satisfying reversal in which Latics converted two of their four  chances, were composed and solid in the lead, and came closer to a third than Liverpool did to an equalizer. Wins like this instill real belief in players. We’ve now only lost one in seven, and it shows. Jean Beausejour is starting to show tricks down the left wing. Shaun Maloney looks fitter. James McCarthy has started shooting again. Gary Caldwell scored a goal with his feet! These are all signs that our players are starting to believe, to regain their confidence. It is a shame, in a way, that the Stoke match is next, given the club’s historical difficulty winning two games in a row. Another huge match beckons.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Made two or three top class saves to keep the Latics in the lead. Such an agile shot stopper, a pleasure to watch.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Strong, solid, coped well.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — Another excellent performance, capped off with an unlikely goal none of us will forget anytime soon.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Struggled with Suarez. The goal came down his side, although not his fault entirely. He gave away the free-kick that led to the disallowed second goal.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Decent, hard-working shift down the right.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Very neat footwork, looked confident but only had the chance to deliver two or three crosses. Substituted in the second half to allow for tactical re-shape.

James McArthur: 7 — I wouldn’t like to play against him, he’s like the energizer bunny, only tougher.

James McCarthy: 8 — See James McArthur, but gets an extra point for one or two lovely positive attacking passes.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Took his penalty expertly, created a clear chance for Conor Sammon late on, neat with his passing. A breath of fresh air.

Victor Moses: 7 — Created and then missed a chance in the opening minutes, when he could have easily laid the ball off. Fouled and injured for the penalty. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — The lad doesn’t score many goals but you have to appreciate his work rate and sacrifice. Often isolated, he ran his socks off for the cause.

Subs:

Albert Crusat: 7 — Not much opportunity to show his attacking skill, and out of position for large chunks of time on the right, he tracked back dutifully and didn’t waste the ball.

Ben Watson: 8 — His introduction saw Latics regain possession. Nice to see him back.

Conor Sammon: n/a — Not on the pitch very long. Had a chance late on. Hard to say that he “missed it” but “might have done better”.

Wigan Athletic 1 WBA 1: Mauro who? Latics robbed

A terrific team display once again ended in frustration for Wigan Athletic, as their 21 shots — 3 of which hit the post — amounted to just one goal, the same as the rather fortunate West Brom. Roberto’s team is surely playing the best football a team in its league position has ever played, and yet it also appears to be the worst at finishing opportunities in all four professional leagues.

With apologies for the late match report, these extra few days of reflection have brought me a frustrating conclusion. We already have a player who could have made the difference — Mauro Boselli. At risk of incurring the wrath of Cockney Latic, this would have been the type of game that would have seen the Argentine thrive.

During Boselli’s frustrating time at the club, the club’s attacking strategy was quite different. Wingers played on opposite sides, there were no wingbacks. N’Zogbia attacked on the right, Rodallega on the left, both cut in to shoot more often than cross the ball to the centre-forward. The role of the centre-forward in that case was that of a target man, someone to hold the ball and lay it off to the skillful, goal-scoring wingers. A role more suited to someone with the traits of say, Franco Di Santo. Boselli — a forward’s opposite of Di Santo, that is, a poacher — was largely starved of service in that team.

If Wigan had 21 shots the other day there must have been at least 30 crosses into the box, many of which were top quality deliveries. Jean Beausejour was simply outstanding — a wonderful performance full of energy, invention and the full range of crossing — curled, lofted, driven, measured. Victor Moses was dangerous in flashes and Emmerson Boyce was as involved as anyone on the pitch, bombing up and down the right flank. Even Maynor Figueroa found the space to get forward from his centre-half position to deliver a couple tantalizing balls into the box. For all Di Santo’s effort and mobile build-up play, all the Latics needed in this game was a finisher. Is there a recall clause in Boselli’s loan?

Probably not, but it wouldn’t happen anyway. Hugo Rodallega is apparently fit to play Liverpool this weekend.

But back to the match. Di Santo had a hat-trick of chances in the first 10 minutes. Emmerson Boyce and James McCarthy, with a close-range header and top-of-the-box screamer respectively, were denied by the crossbar. Ben Foster was enjoying the game of his life. Shaun Maloney, in for Gomez in the attacking midfield role, was clearly not match fit but still a big improvement on the Spaniard’s recent performances. He has imagination, the vision to break down a defense with a pass or stepover. James McCarthy and James McArthur dominated midfield, as has become their custom — it’s hard to imagine a gutsier pair in there; honest, tough, and cultured with their passing. The defense looked good.

Latics finally got their reward in the second half in the scrappiest of ways. Victor Moses’ dangerous cross hit a West Brom defender and was bundled over the line by James McArthur. It’s not often that a Wigan supporter breathes easy, but West Brom had shown so little that I admit there were a couple minutes during which I believed we could go on and win this one comfortably. A foolish thought, as minutes later Paul Scharner equalized from an unmarked header, from a corner.

At one point, Yusuf Mulumbu, frustrated at James McArthur’s relentless harrying, should have been sent off for retaliation when he pushed the Wigan midfielder right in front of the referee. If McArthur had gone to ground, it would have been red. If it had been McArthur and not Mulumbu who did it, it’s possible it would have been red too.

Mohamed Diame came on and again was guilty of missing the best chance of the match after Beausejour yet again did the hard part, laying a low cross into his path. Albert Crusat hit the post yet again in the dying moments, but it wasn’t to be.

In mid-week news, Queen’s Park Rangers somehow beat Liverpool 3-2 and Blackburn Rovers have gone three points higher after beating Sunderland. Grim news indeed.

The Good:

The team performance. Roberto’s game plan. They did everything they could. Real urgency, real effort and everyone played very well, except Di Santo — who was not bad, but also didn’t score.

The Bad:

Switching off for one crucial set play to allow Scharner to equalize against the run of play. The finishing. The fixture list and the league table.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not to blame for the goal. Didn’t have much to do.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7 — Was excellent but looked like he should have been marking Scharner for the goal.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Another good performance from the Scot, who has been very impressive of late.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Solid at the back and delivered one or two great crosses. Should not be allowed to take free-kicks though. Specially when Shaun Maloney is the other option.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Bombed up and down, was as involved as anyone, almost scored. But isn’t a natural finisher.

Jean Beausejour: 10 — The Chilean gets the first 10/10 on this website. He didn’t put a foot wrong. His crosses would have resulted in a hat-trick for a proven Premier League goalscorer. Or Grant Holt.

James McCarthy: 8 — The build-up to his shot that hit the crossbar typifies him. Excellent, strong tackle to win the ball, on his feet in a flash, beautiful technique in the shot. But we need him to be near the box more frequently.

James McArthur: 8 — Another good shift. Misplaced the ball a few times in the first half, but made up for it with the sheer number of yards he covered, not least when scoring the goal.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Showed flashes of what he is capable of, but this was his first start for the club in a long time, and wasn’t totally sharp. Still, he will play a big part in the run in.

Victor Moses: 7 — Quiet in the first half but created the goal with a nice piece of skill.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Everything but the goals.

Subs:

Callum McManaman: 5 — Had his chance to be a hero, but nerves and enthusiasm got the better of him. Spurned a glorious chance when caught frozen in the box, and then over eagerness saw him shoot into the stands. Still not ready, on this showing.

Mo Diame: 6 — As against Norwich, was dangerous when he came on but missed the best chance of the match.

Albert Crusat: 7 — Only on the pitch a few minutes but combined well with Jean Beausejour and hit the post.