A superb 88th minute shot from Bernard Malanda broke Wigan hearts .
It had been a rollercoaster evening for Latics – who had blown hot and cold – but the game looked to be heading for a draw until the 19 year old Malanda struck.
Wigan knew they were going to be in for a tough match, given the Belgian team’s recent form. The stark fact was that a team standing mid-table in the second tier of English football needed to beat a team currently second in the Belgian Jupiler League.
But then again Latics fans have become accustomed to giant killing, so maybe in some cases it was taken for granted that Wigan would win.
However, Latics started well. Owen Coyle had put out a well-balanced starting lineup, omitting his two out-of-form central strikers and playing Nick Powell upfront. Callum McMananan and James McClean were on the wings and Jordi Gomez in his natural advanced midfield role.
The four were to link up very well at times in the first half, showing the kind of movement and mutual understanding that had been sadly lacking for big chunks of the Brighton game.
Coyle had brought back the tall Thomas Rogne at centre back who was to dominate the aerial game in defence. Stephen Crainey was brought in at left back and offered good support to McClean on the left, even getting to the byline himself to put over useful crosses.
Surprisingly for the neutral, Roger Espinoza was once again left on the bench for Chris McCann to continue in midfield, this time paired with James McArthur.
In the opening minutes Wigan’s wingers were looking lively and there was much more chemistry in the attack than we have seen for months. It was therefore no surprise when McManaman made a great run to the byline in the 7th minute to pull back for Gomez who fluffed his shot, but Leon Barnett stepped in and volleyed home with aplomb.
Latics continued to use the wings, with Gomez and Powell the catalysts in the middle.
But the Belgian team gradually clawed back control. They had not seriously troubled the Latics defence until a 37th minute breakaway saw the excellent Thorgen Hazard hit a shot from the right that Lee Nicholls made a complete hash of, pushing the ball into his own net.
Coyle made no changes at half time. Gomez had a bad start to the second half, with poor deliveries from set pieces followed by the crowd voicing their frustration with him after being caught unawares as an opponent robbed him of the ball. He was to be substituted after 64 minutes for Marc-Antoine Fortune.
Nicholls’ error had proved the turning point. Latics confidence had visibly wilted and it was an uphill battle from then on. However, they hung in there and gradually clawed their way back into the match. There were times when Latics looked thoroughly abject, but they showed resolve.
In the end Latics had held their own against a strong side. They had played good football at times and created more chances than the visitors.
The result was a huge disappointment after hopes had been so high.
However, against technically superior opposition Latics had done enough to win. The margin proved to be due to a goalkeeping error and a spectacular finish that would have been good enough to decide the result of any match.
Coyle made a bold move by leaving out both of his experienced central strikers, putting Powell up front. The young player was excellent in the centre forward role, linking up well with the wingers and Gomez. It was hard to understand why later in the game, Powell – who was the main threat to the Belgian team’s defence – was pushed out to the right wing.
It was refreshing to see the wing play of both McManaman and McClean in the first half. Both played with energy and commitment and no mean level of skill. Crainey at left back also gave support to the attack in a much improved performance by him.
If it had not been for the error after 37 minutes who knows what might have happened? Latics had been playing well and Coyle’s tactical plan seemed to be working. The movement that had been sadly lacking in the Brighton match was plain to see in that first half.
There was a moment in the second half when Nicholls had the ball and there were at least seven Latics players static not far outside their own penalty area. It was a manifestation of how tired and dispirited Latics had looked at times.
Questions remain as to the level of fitness of the players. So often this season we have seen severe dips in their athletic performance during a match. Critics would say that this was something that occurred to Coyle’s teams at Bolton and that he is too easy on players during training. Others would criticize the conditioning staff.
In this case it might well have been mental rather than physical. That first goal had an enormous impact on the morale of a team that is brittle in terms of self-confidence. Despite Coyle’s utterings that morale is good it does not manifest itself on the field of play.
Once again the midfield was looking one-paced and sluggish in the second half, crying out for an injection of pace and energy. The player who could have provided that – Roger Espinoza – was left on the bench until the 83rd minute.
This is not to suggest that Espinoza is a better player than McArthur and McCann, but the blend was wrong. It was a similar situation to the Brighton game when the pairing of McCann and Ben Watson had looked one-paced.
Once again the defence was unable to pass the ball effectively.
According to Squawka “A no-nonsense attitude at the back for Wigan also gave rise to 50 clearances, something which allowed Zulte to rather consistently regain possession in order to launch new attacks, and at two crucial moments in the last few minutes of each half the Wigan defence was caught.”
When the centre backs get the ball they will play it across to each other or the full backs. More often than not it is returned to them and they either hoof the ball forward or pass it back to the goalkeeper for a long clearance. Nine times out of ten the end result is the other team getting possession.
Lee Nicholls: 5 – a learning experience for the young player.
Emmerson Boyce: 6 – solid, but just not the player at full back that he was at wing back under Martinez.
Leon Barnett: 6 – took his goal really well and was solid in defence. Poor in his distribution.
Thomas Rogne: 6 – ruled the air in the centre of defence. What a pity such a potentially good young player has not been coached into using the ball more effectively.
Stephen Crainey: 6 – a much improved performance. Made some good overlapping runs.
James McArthur: 6 – although he played with his usual commitment and got through a lot of work he seems a pale shadow of his former self. Some might say he misses his old partner, James McCarthy, but Coyle just does not seem to be getting the best out of this Latics stalwart.
Chris McCann: 6 – once again did a lot of work behind the scenes, supporting the defence.
Jordi Gomez: 6 – although he made mistakes at times he was a key link player in the first half. Taking him off after the crowd got on his case is not going to help the player’s level of confidence. He needed a better level of support from a manager who had put him in the starting lineup.
Callum McManaman: 6 – looked like his old self in the first half but looked tired and dispirited in the second. Taken off after 83 minutes.
Nick Powell: 8 – looked the part as the centre forward, full of endeavour and showed his skill.
James McClean: 7 – the best game I have seen him play for Latics. Full of drive and energy and showed a level of skill that we have not seen before.
Marc-Antoine Fortune: – came on after 64 minutes. Poor.
Roger Espinoza: – clearly not one of Coyle’s favourite players, being brought on after 83 minutes.
Grant Holt: – brought on for the long balls in the 90th minute.