Europa or Championship for Latics?

When Ben Watson scored that wonderful last minute header at Wembley he changed the face of Wigan Athletic FC, as we had known it.

Latics had announced themselves on the global map.

For so many years Latics had to put up with the “little club” tag, seemingly doomed to the lower reaches of the Football League. Outsiders viewed Wigan as a rugby town, a view more than supported by Maurice Lindsay in an infamous television interview in the 1980’s. His stance was symptomatic of the condescending attitude of rugby league followers of the time. It made Latics supporters’  blood boil. Was the club ever going to rid itself of that image?

How times have changed. After eight years in the Premier League and winning the FA Cup, the name of Wigan Athletic is now known worldwide. Although the rugby club remain a big fish in a small pond their football counterpart has moved on.

Latics now have an opportunity to gain further prestige through their participation in the Europa League.

In the days prior to the FA Cup final so many Latics fans were saying that, if they had the choice of staying in the Premier League or winning the FA Cup, they would choose the former. One wonders how many were to think differently when the Cup came to Wigan.

So what would be the priority this time around – promotion out of the Championship or progression in the Europa League?

It could be argued that Latics’ FA Cup run had an adverse effect on their league position in the last campaign. The end of season fixture congestion that resulted in them having to play a make-or-break match at Highbury only three days after the Cup Final victory was cruel and merciless.

However, if anything put Latics out of the Premier League last season it was injuries. The result was a lack of continuity in team selection and a cruel decimation of playing resources at the end of the season when all those fixtures came raining in.

Owen Coyle has worked wonders in the transfer market by bringing in 12 new players since he started in July. It leaves him with a squad of 30 players – marginally bigger than that of Roberto Martinez last season – but containing  Ali Al-Habsi, Gary Caldwell and Ivan Ramis who are still out of action due to long term injuries.

Much will depend on his deployment of the young professionals contained therein. Last year Callum McManaman and Roman Golobart were the ones who made the starting lineup in the league. We will have to wait to see if Coyle will include the other young pros – Adam Buxton, Nouha Dicko, Rob Kiernan, Jordan Mustoe, Lee Nicholls and Danny Redmond – in the rotations.

If Coyle’s squad has a weakness then it is in the area of attack, with only two central strikers available. With Grant Holt already out until October Latics fans will pray that Marc-Antoine Fortune avoids injury.  Coyle continues to look for forwards through the loan market. Speculation suggests that he wants to bring Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn initially on loan with a view to a £9 m permanent move in January. But, however cash-strapped Blackburn might be, they are unlikely to want to lose their most prized asset to local rivals. Moreover Dave Whelan is going to think twice about spending so much on a player who has never played at the highest level of English football.

It will be interesting to see what kind of lineup Coyle chooses for the Zulte Waregem tie on Thursday. It will be an indication of how important he sees the Europa League compared with the Championship.

Latics fans will hope they give a good account of themselves in both.

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A look at Latics’ Europa League opposition – Part 3: Rubin Kazan

Wigan Athletic’s third match in the Europa League will be at home to Rubin Kazan on October 24th.  The return match is scheduled for November 7th .

Rubin are currently in 7th place in the Russian Premier League, but are unbeaten. They have won two and drawn five matches, conceding only three goals. Last season Rubin finished 6th, becoming one of four Russian teams qualifying for the Europa League.

Rubin performed well in the Europa League last year, winning their group, being unbeaten in the six matches. In doing so they beat Inter Milan 3-0 at home after drawing 2-2 at the San Siro. They stunned holders Atletico Madrid in the last 32 with a 2-0 win at the Vicente Calderon Stadium after losing 1-0 in the home leg.

Then followed a 2-0  home victory in extra time over another Spanish team, Levante, after drawing 0-0 in the first leg. The quarter final first leg at Stamford Bridge saw Chelsea beat them 3-1. Rubin fought hard in the return match played  in Moscow but a valiant 3-2 win was not enough and saw them eliminated.

Rubin Kazan was founded in 1958 under the name of Iskra. The club never played in the old Soviet Top League and languished in the lower regional leagues until they won promotion to the Russian First Division (the second tier) in 1992. They won the First Division eleven years later, being promoted to the Russian Premier League for the first time in 2003.

Since then they have performed well, winning the championship in 2008 and 2009 and the Russian Cup in 2011-12. They took four points off Barcelona in the group stage of the Champions League in 2009-10, including a 2-1 win at the Nou Camp.

Rubin – which means ruby – are based in Kazan, a city of over 1 million people in the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan is around 460 miles south east of Moscow. It is the eastern-most city with a team competing in this year’s  Europa League group stage. Average daily high temperatures drop from 8º C in October to -1º C in November.

2129__rubin_kazan-home-kitRubin currently play at the Central Stadium, which is municipally owned, accommodating 30,133 spectators . They are shortly due to move the new Kazan Arena – capacity 45,105 – which will host the 2018 World Cup. Rubin’s home kit is ruby red. Around one half of their senior squad are Russians, the remainder foreign players from diverse backgrounds.

In order to reach the group stage of this season’s Europa League, Rubin had to go through three qualifying round. They not only knocked out Jagodina (Serbia), Randers (Denmark) and Molde (Norway), but won all six ties they played.

Rubin have substantial experience over the past ten years in both the Champions League and the Europa League, gaining notable results. They have a tight defence and a dangerous forward in the Venezuelan Salomón Rondón – signed in summer 2012 from Malaga for €10 million – who scored three goals in the games against Inter Milan last year.

Central stadium, Kazan

The Central Stadium, Kazan

Before the draw for the group stage was made Latics were hoping to avoid a trip to Russia. They are going to have to come to terms with the length of the journey and the visit to Tatarstan will be at the onset of winter, when low temperatures are a strong possibility.More than that they are going to meet a side that is going to be difficult to beat.

Group D of the Europa League – with Wigan, Zulte Waregem, NK Maribor and Rubin Kazan – might not have the glamour clubs of some of the other groups.

However, it is going to be very competitive with any one of the four teams having a decent chance of progressing to the next round. There are going to be no easy games.The top two teams in each of the 12 groups, together with 8 third placed teams from the Champions League, will compete in the Round of 32 which starts in February.

The Europa League is a big competition. Last year 193 clubs from 53 countries were involved.  In order to reach the final from the group stage Wigan would need to play 14 matches. When Fulham got there in 2009-10 season from the qualifying rounds they had to play 19  extra games. However, there are significant financial rewards for progressing through the various  stages of the competition.

It will be interesting to see how Owen Coyle approaches the Europa League matches, where the football is going to be a different style than in the fast and furious Championship. He has some players who have already played in the competition for their previous clubs, but for the majority of his squad it will be a learning experience.

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