Fulham 2 Wigan Athletic 2 – good football is back for Latics

 

It was a lovely mild spring evening and the walk through Bishops Park by the Thames was as delightful as any approach to a football ground. But then again, despite its great location, Craven Cottage had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Wigan Athletic.

It was Gary Caldwell’s first game as manager. What kind of tactical formation would he play? Would it be the 3-4-3 from his days under Roberto Martinez? Could he get the commitment from the players that has been lacking for so much of the season? Would he bring back players who had been left out in the cold under Malky Mackay? But more importantly could he steer his players away from the hoof that typified the era of his predecessor? Could they play football in the “Wigan Athletic way”?

It proved to be an entertaining 2-2 draw and Latics were well worth their point. A win was just beyond their reach and relegation has crept even closer. But the bright side was that, after just two days of training, Caldwell had got the team moving towards a brand of football reminiscent of the club’s best of times in the Premier League.

The starting lineup showed two changes from the last game with Scott Carson being preferred to Ali Al-Habsi and Jerome Pennant came in for Leon Clarke. Caldwell employed a flat back four, with William Kvist and James Perch in holding midfield and Kim Bo Kyung in the hole behind the lone centre forward, Marc-Antoine Fortune. James McClean was played wide on the left and Jerome Pennant on the right, although the latter tucked inside in the earlier proceedings.

Fulham’s goal after just 4 minutes was beautifully taken by the skillful Ross McCormack, as he curled the ball home from the edge of the box. However, once again the Wigan defence had not closed down a player in a shooting position, as has so often happened this season. Going a goal down so early on was a hammer blow and given their inability to get back into games after conceding the first goal in previous games one wondered if Latics might be doomed.

However, Caldwell’s new Latics began to dominate possession, largely resisting the hoof. Fulham were put on the back foot but there was little penetration in Wigan’s play. The forwards were simply not making the runs necessary to unlock a stubborn home defence with two giant central defenders who were ready to gobble up anything that went in the air. However, in the 22nd minute McClean was upended as he set off on a mazy run at speed. Pennant stepped up to score a delightful free kick, just like the first one he scored at Rotherham. Latics were clearly delighted and Pennant and Gaetan Bong ran to the other end of the field to celebrate in front of the visiting support.

Matt Smith’s beautifully taken long range goal after 35 minutes put the home team ahead again. Despite the excellence of the finish the Latics’ defence had once again backed off and allowed an opposition player a clear shot on goal.

Despite Wigan dominating the possession Fulham were a goal up as the teams went in for half time. One wondered if Caldwell would be able to find an answer to the lack of penetration of the Wigan attack.

Latics started the second half unchanged and the game continued in a similar vein although Fulham looked dangerous in flashes. The Wigan central defenders had looked uncomfortable playing the ball out of defence. Jason Pearce sometimes found a midfield player with a short pass, but largely passed the ball sideways or backwards. Harry Maguire’s passing was repeatedly off target as he went for long diagonal balls to the flanks. Carson’s distribution was also poor as he launched his customary long kicks that were too often ineffective against the height in Fulham’s defence. Meanwhile Latics continued to lack penetration up front.

However, Fortune was taken off after 56 minutes, the visiting supporters loudly cheering the arrival on the pitch of Martyn Waghorn. Latics then started to show more movement up front, players running off the ball to support those in possession. As a result their passing became more incisive and they deservedly got back in the game as Maguire headed on a Pennant corner for Pearce to slide home.

Chris McCann replaced the tiring Emmerson Boyce after 70 minutes with James Perch moving to a more familiar full back position. Josh Murphy replaced Pennant after 83 minutes as both teams attacked trying to get a winner. Both teams had chances in the closing minutes but the game was to finish in a draw that guarantees safety for Fulham but leaves Latics in deep relegation trouble.

Despite the inability of his team to win the three points, Caldwell was clearly happy with their performance. Good football has returned and there were signs in the second half that the forwards were able to make the kinds of incisive runs that will unlock defences.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Good:

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

The Bad:

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

Battle on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Ratings:

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

Antolin Alcaraz: 7.5 — Solid.

Gary Caldwell: 7.5 — Solid.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Cool under pressure.

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

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Tired.

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

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

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

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

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

Subs:

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

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

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

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