Can brave Latics beat City again?


Wigan Athletic have been drawn away to Manchester City in the sixth round of the FA Cup.

So it is the cup holders against the cup runners-up.

City have been in electrifying form at home all season and have already beaten Latics 5-0 in the League Cup at the Etihad Stadium in September. They will also be keen to avenge the defeat at Wembley last May.

As is often the case the odds are stacked heavily against Latics.

But then again Latics have defied the odds before and come through triumphant.

The match is due to be played on March 8th/9th.

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Youngsters to get their chance

What is the point of tonight’s match at the Etihad Stadium? Is there anything Wigan Athletic can gain from it, other than a share of gate revenue?

The League Cup meeting between Wigan Athletic and Manchester City was being built up as a repeat of the FA Cup final. Could David once again kill Goliath?

The media have now come to their senses. They now realize that Latics will be playing their third game in six days, let alone having been hit by injuries to both of their mainline central strikers and their playmaker.

The Citizens’ fan site Vital Manchester City reckons that Nick Powell will be the man to watch in the Latics side. The reality is that of all the players who might make the lineup tonight, Powell is one of the least likely. He played a full match against Ipswich on Sunday after playing for 83 minutes on his debut in Bruges last Thursday. To be fair to the fan site they do qualify their comments by stating that Powell “will need some shackling, if selected”.

Owen Coyle has rightly criticized the powers that be for their scheduling of the match. He has also said he will have to make “umpteen” changes, with a chance for some of the young players from the fringes of his squad.

In terms of the senior players, Coyle will not want to risk injuries with a difficult Championship fixture at Watford coming up on Saturday. On the other hand he will not want to run the risk of annihilation by putting out a team too short on experience.

His best option will be to look at putting in senior players who have not played major roles in the last two games. That rules out Scott Carson, Ryan Shotton, James Perch, James McArthur, James McClean, Nick Powell and Callum McManaman.

Even then Coyle will need to take a look at other players who made the lineup on Sunday, having to make a decision whether he is willing to risk them for another match only two days later. Emmerson Boyce was given a partial rest on Sunday, coming on as a substitute after 75 minutes. Ben Watson came on after 66 minutes in Belgium and played a full game on Sunday.

Senior players who clearly stand a chance of making the starting lineup include Stephen Crainey, Roger Espinoza, Fraser Fyvie, Jordi Gomez and Chris McCann. Juan Carlos Garcia is still adapting to his move from Honduras, but could be thrust in tonight at either left or centre back.

The names of “youngsters”  Lee Nicholls, Adam Buxton and Nouha Dicko have already been mentioned as possibilities for the lineup tonight. Nicholls is likely to replace Scott Carson in goal, with Buxton coming in at right back. Given the likely absence of other challengers Dicko could even end up in the centre forward position, where he has played before for the under-21 team.

Rob Kiernan is a promising young central defender, but Coyle might not want to expose him to dealing with the outstanding strikers that City can field. Jordan Mustoe deserves a chance at full back, as does Danny Redmond in midfield.

The emergence of the talented 19 year old Ross Barkley at Everton has had journalists praising Roberto Martinez for giving youth a chance. However, that was not always the case while he was at Wigan. The “youngsters” mentioned above are 21 to 22 years old. Their appearances with the senior side have been confined to cup matches against lower league opposition.

Coyle has a difficult task in putting together a team that can give Manchester City a contest tonight. At least three of the senior players he puts in the starting lineup are likely to be replaced in the second half, providing he does not have to make substitutions earlier due to injuries.

In the grander scheme of things the result of tonight’s match is of minor importance to Latics. The priorities are to get promotion out of the Championship and to put up a good show in the Europa League. However, Coyle will not want a whitewash that might damage morale within the club.

The most positive aspect is that opportunities will be given to young players – at long last!

The day Wigan established themselves among football’s elite

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When you watch it again on television, it is hard to tell that Ben Watson’s FA Cup winning header actually happened in slow motion. But from my bright red Wembley seat about 15 yards away, I can assure you that the world stopped for a magical 10 seconds as the ball sat up, suspended in mid-air, spinning. Then the world moved forward again, in freeze-frame snapshots. Joe Hart’s acrobatic leap and disbelieving eyes. Arouna Koné’s realization. My wife and brother-in-law, wearing moustaches and sombreros, shaking me with unbridled joy. A child on his father’s shoulders taking in a moment he is unlikely to forget. The passion — the release — in Callum McManaman’s celebrations. A supporter wearing the 2005 shirt from the club’s promotion season, the same one my Grandad had received autographed by the first team and subsequently passed on to me. Sheer euphoria.

My love of Wigan Athletic goes beyond my considerable love of the game. It is a personal and emotional connection to my roots; a source of pride, of enjoyment; a sporting fairy tale that I love sharing with people. It is the source of friendships, a topic of conversation, a hobby. As I took in the moments after the final whistle, I found myself wishing I knew the stories of all these singing and dancing men, women and children around me. I thought of my mother and father waking up the neighbours at 2:00 a.m. in Indonesia, my brother-in-law John who had flown over for the semi-final from Germany, friends watching from all corners of the world, neutrals hatching an interest for a club they previously knew little about. I saw a section of Omani supporters singing an Ali Al-Habsi-themed song in chorus with a group of Wiganers. Roger Espinoza receiving an Honduran flag from the crowd. It was a magical moment at Wembley. Football may just be a game, but its power to unite people and form lasting friendships — and memories — is unquestionable.

From a sporting perspective, this result was the equivalent of Honduras winning the World Cup — something I would also enjoy. Plenty of newspapers have since mapped out the financial mismatch between the finalists, the consensus being that Wigan’s entire starting XI had been assembled for less money than the average cost of a single player in Manchester City’s starting XI. Bookmakers were offering 10-1 odds for a Wigan Athletic victory before kick-off. Manchester City supporters on the London Tube appeared to be in town for a victory celebration rather than a football match, and indeed sang about off-the-pitch matters rather than supporting their players for the task at hand. Meanwhile, Wigan had played three games in 10 days, were missing five defenders to injury, and had a crucial match at Arsenal in the league three days after to keep in mind.

And yet it was Wigan that looked fresher, hungrier, that looked the better team. Save for a couple first half scares — most notably a superb save by keeper Joel Robles from a Sergio Aguero effort — Latics created more and probably should have been awarded a couple penalties before Pablo Zabaleta’s sending off and Ben Watson’s winner. It was a performance on par with any I can recall against such strong opposition, and worthy of the title. Aside from the eye-catching performance of McManaman, it was a true team performance where individuals did not stand-out. It put the magic back into the FA Cup.

There is, of course, no time to celebrate as two disastrous results in the Premier League on Sunday meant Wigan must beat Arsenal away and Aston Villa at home in order to achieve their other aim of staying in the Premier League. The daunting Arsenal fixture is due to take place only three days after the superhuman effort the players put in at Wembley, which is plain unfair.

But Wigan supporters will be relatively at ease. The FA Cup victory is an achievement on so many levels, not least in that most of the victories on the road to Wembley were achieved using squad and youth players. Indeed, the player of the tournament, McManaman, wasn’t even in contention for a spot on the bench in the league at the beginning of the season. Even if some certain were to leave the club in a relegation scenario, the squad is deep. They made easy work of Huddersfield and Millwall — admittedly both strugglers in the Championship, but fired up for the Cup ties. Players such as Shaun Maloney and Koné have voiced their commitment to the club. It is doubtful that Martinez would leave if the club were to be relegated. Plus, there would be Europa League action to look forward to next season, something most of the club’s players will be eager to experience for the first time in their careers.

What’s more, the FA Cup victory proves a real winning mentality at the club. Martinez has not been successful just because of his results — it’s the manner in which they have been achieved. They’re no longer scared of anyone. Most of Manchester City’s opponents on a budget like Wigan’s would have parked the team bus and hoped for a lucky goal or penalties. Martinez attacked City, played them evenly ending the game with the same number of shots. The difference in budgets may have told over the course of the full season, where Wigan have struggled to replace departed or injured players and dropped points as a result — but in the FA Cup final, his cheaply assembled XI were better than City’s.

What’s more, the trophy establishes Wigan in football’s elite. It will help with recruiting talented players. It puts the club on the map. It will bring the club new fans. It puts the club in Europe next season, regardless of the outcome in the relegation battle. Whether Martinez manages the impossible with another great escape or not, Wigan is now in the big leagues to stay. It’s another step in the rapid progression the club has made, another rung on the ladder.

But it’s not over yet. Wigan has two more finals, and two more opportunities to defy the odds. Their best work seems to happen just when success appears impossible — this is certainly the most difficult league Premier League situation yet. They’ll certainly need that winning mentality on Tuesday, not to mention several pain-killing injections before the match. But anyone who witnessed the magic at Wembley on Saturday — and there were 30,000 of us there, three eighths of the town’s population — knows that regardless of the outcome, our proud little club just got bigger.

Late heartbreak for classy Latics

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A very strong Wigan Athletic performance lacking only a goal ended in misery as a Carlos Tevez wonderstrike settled the affair with five minutes to go.

Wigan had been outstanding all over the pitch but more than once found themselves thwarted by excellent goalkeeping and defending at the crucial moment.

It is a cruel blow, but if ever a defeat could offer encouragement, this would be a good one to watch. For large periods of the match, Wigan out-passed and out-classed the defending champions on their own patch and deserved at least a point for their efforts.

Any concerns about the FA Cup being a distraction from league survival were put to bed in the first half, as Latics had earned two corners inside the first three minutes. Having reverted to the wingback formation with Franco Di Santo pairing Arouna Koné up front instead of a traditional right winger in Callum McManaman, Wigan enjoyed as much possession as their counterparts and without a doubt fashioned the best scoring opportunities. Di Santo was involved in two of them, first cutting his pass too far behind the on-rushing Koné, and then doing exceptionally well from a Shaun Maloney flick only to be sensationally stopped by Manchester City keeper Joe Hart.

Meanwhile, City were restricted to largely hopeful crossing although Paul Scharner’s struggles with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez foreshadowed trouble. The midfield duo of James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez were neat and incisive and continued to fine tune their blossoming partnership. All in all, things were going very well indeed, though you got the feeling the missed opportunities would eventually prove costly.

The second half continued in much the same vein with a Maloney shot cleared off the line, followed by a sensational one-touch move involving Jordi Gomez, Maloney, Di Santo and Kone foiled by Vincent Kompany at the last second. City grew into the game as time went on, but Wigan threatened on the break and good running by McManaman — on for the injured Di Santo — could have done with a more assertive finish.

The Good:

This was a team performance reminiscent of the golden run-in last year, on the defending champions’ home patch. The midfield was outstanding, the forward play was strong and positive, and the defending, save for Scharner who struggled throughout, was top class.

The Bad:

An opportunity lost, given the level of performance and chances squandered. Di Santo generally looked sharp and hungry but was unable to take his chance. A difficult loss to swallow.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Not much to do in first half, but made a couple very good saves in the second — one from Edin Dzeko in particular.

Paul Scharner: 5 — Had a hard time. Got beaten in one-on-ones, notably in the build-up to the goal, and gave away possession on several occasions.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Commanding, with some intelligent and controlled slide tackling.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Good shift from the Honduran despite making a mess of a very promising breakaway in the second half with an overhit pass.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Worked very hard defensively and had to cover for Scharner more than once.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Though his crosses were not finished off, he got forward frequently and played a number of them, some very tasty indeed. Also disciplined in defensive duties.

James McCarthy: 9 — Dominant in midfield, he grew as the match went on. Complete performance.

Jordi Gomez: 8 — Looking ever more comfortable in the holding role with some good positive passing and good break-up play. Showing more urgency and forward passing in recent weeks, which is great to see.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Another excellent performer, denied on the line with a curling effort in the first half, and should have been on the assist sheet with a clever flick for Di Santo in the first. Was a pest all night darting, weaving and threading passes.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck that one away. Did extremely well to shrug off his defenders but telegraphed it. Still, it was an excellent save by Hart and the Argentine had a good game. Lets hope the injury is minor.

Arouna Koné: 8 — Confident and strong target man play, he was in the right place at the right time more than once only for City’s excellent defenders to make last ditch tackles.

Subs:

McManaman: Looked confident when he came on and quickly created a good shooting opportunity, but failed to trouble Hart.

McArthur: Came on right after the goal and didn’t have enough time to affect the game.

Espinoza: A late sub.

Man City vs Wigan Athletic: Focus needed

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It’s hard to remember a senior member of the current Wigan squad who has not publicly stated that league survival trumps cup success this year — but no one put it better than Roberto Martinez yesterday in comments to The Guardian, in reference to today’s clash with Manchester City.

“In many aspects the league game is bigger,” he said. “I don’t think there are games which are more important than others. They are all very significant. But if you are asking me what it represents for a club like Wigan winning the FA Cup final or staying in the Premier League, then staying in the Premier League would mean the next 10 years of the football club would be financially very stable. The new facilities that we have planned can happen and behind the scenes the club can go to a different level.

“But when you have the opportunity to win the FA Cup, you can’t disregard it and say that’s not important. They are both important. This is the sort of season we want. There’s only Manchester City, Chelsea and Wigan who are involved in two competitions at this moment. It requires a strong mentality and we’ve never had that before.”

To further assert the point, Martinez yesterday admitted that the season would be assessed as a failure internally should the team win the FA Cup but subsequently be relegated from the league. The money involved in another season in the league is what keeps the club developing behind the scenes, and a year without it would represent a huge setback to the excellent progress of recent years.

He also outlined the strength of his squad. This is a squad that was torn apart by injuries for the first half of the season but is finally approaching full strength. The lessons of Birmingham and Portsmouth — teams fighting on two fronts that eventually lost out in the league — are valuable, but neither team was peaking in form or fitness as Latics currently are, or had strength in numbers. Wigan’s bench, with Franco Di Santo, Gary Caldwell, James McArthur and until recently, Ali Al-Habsi, has never been stronger.

With a very important fixture at West Ham looming next Saturday, we may witness some changes to the starting eleven tonight. It will be interesting to see if Ali Al-Habsi retains his place, or if his role for the rest of the season will be that of Cup Goalkeeper, as was Joel Robles’ before the Everton performance changed things.

It’s hard to forsee any changes in the back four unless there is concern over the fitness levels of either Paul Scharner or Antolin Alcaraz, who played very few minutes in 2012. In midfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see James McArthur included to add steel in midfield. And Franco Di Santo must be itching for a game. The Argentine has been the victim of Callum McManaman’s emergence and the change of shape to accomodate traditional wingers instead of wing-backs. But with a contract on the negotiation table, Martinez will want him to feel involved and important to the team.

While it is highly unlikely that Wigan should obtain two positive results against an in-form Manchester City side at away and neutral venues respectively, the pragmatist among us would happily settle for one. The impossible question, of course, is which of the two?

A loss today in the league would not crush Wigan’s hopes of staying up, considering there are more accessible fixtures remaining from which to gain the necessary 8-9 points such as West Ham and West Brom away, or Swansea, Spurs and Aston Villa at home. On the other hand, every point matters at this stage and the league table is tighter than ever.

The key today will be whether our players can retain their focus and energy levels after their Wembley adventure, against a wildly different opponent, and one they’ve struggled against. The odds are not favourable, but Manchester City was one of the few scalps Wigan did not claim in the amazing run last season — can they do it this time around?