Fulham 1 Wigan Athletic 1: Di Santo redeems himself

DiSanto

A game of two halves for Franco Di Santo. Prior to this match, the Argentinian had not scored a goal since the beginning of October. The way he played in the first half reflected as much. In the first five minutes he somehow managed not to hit the net from two yards out, the ball trickling from his boot to the goalkeeper following a lovely move involving James McCarthy and Shaun Maloney. Even his usually excellent approach play wasn’t quite up to his usual standards as frustration set in. Shortly before half time, a neat backheel from James McArthur led to Emmerson Boyce putting over a great cross that a more accomplished Premier League striker would have poached — Di Santo put it over.

Roberto Martinez had gone into it with a conservative line-up. He packed the centre of midfield with David Jones, James McArthur and James McCarthy, while Shaun Maloney was employed in the second striker role. Fulham had strangely started without a recognized holding player to compete for midfield possession.  After Fulham had taken the lead in the 22nd minute with a spectacular goal from Giorgos Karagounis it looked like Wigan had a hill to climb and their lack of cutting edge was cause for concern. Neat approach play is to no avail without clinical finishing.

As the second half progressed the need for another forward became even more apparent. However,  in the 66th minute Jordi Gomez was brought on for David Jones.  Wigan reverted to a straight back four, with Gomez and Beausejour pushed into wide midfield positions. Although the move resulted in Wigan having two players in wide positions who do not have the speed to get past opposing full backs, the change of shape galvanised their play.The chief beneficiary was Shaun Maloney, who dropped deeper into the playmaker role, and dictated Latics’ attacking play from that moment on. Di Santo and his teammates  improved and the revived Argentinian went near with a quickfire volley before scoring a gem of an equalizer in the 71st minute. His confidence restored, he went close to a winner minutes later.

After a horrible injury to Ivan Ramis in the closing minutes Wigan fell apart and it was only an amazing goal line clearance from Maynor Figueroa that stopped them losing a match they had deserved to win.

The Good

A valuable point gained at a ground where Latics struggled so much in the past. The defence was disciplined and alert.  Wigan played skillful football and created chances. The reemergence of Franco Di Santo from the doldrums bodes well in the absence of the accomplished Arouna Kone. Wigan played with spirit and the result will help boost morale, following a poor run of results.

The Bad

Wigan’s cruel luck continues with a bad ligament injury to Ivan Ramis, who had done so much to neutralise the threat of Dmitar Berbatov.  Wigan had the better share of clear scoring opportunities and could have brought home three  points rather than one.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 6 – a quiet afternoon.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – very solid in defence, reading the game well, using his considerable experience.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – played the major part in keeping Berbatov at bay. Solid in defence and possibly a big loss for the rest of the season. Let’s hope not.

Gary Caldwell: 8 – marshalled his defence, excellent in positioning and tackling.

Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 – saved two points with a stunning goal line  clearance. Disciplined and solid  in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – gradually regaining his touch. Worked hard in defence and put in some nice crosses.

James McCarthy: 7 – consistent as ever. Looked classy.

James McArthur: 6 – worked hard, tackled well and put through some nice passes.

David Jones: 6 – hard working,  but  wish his passing would be more incisive.

Shaun Maloney: 7 – much more comfortable in the playmaker role. At the heart of the second half revival.

Franco Di Santo: 6 – a game of two halves , but good to see him back on form in the last half hour.

Substitutes.

Jordi Gomez: – played out of position on the right and had little input on the game as a result.

Ronnie Stam: came very late in the game, but his lapse could have led to a defeat in added time.

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WIGAN ATHLETIC 2 STOKE CITY 2

Perhaps we Latics fans were getting a little over-confident. A couple of encouraging performances at Southampton and Nottingham Forest over the past week, plus a great record against Stoke in the Premier League. Did we really think it was going to be easy to beat Stoke? It proved not to be. Despite going behind twice the visitors showed a fighting spirit and deserved their point in an entertaining game.

Latics went ahead after only 5 minutes, a shot from James McCarthy hitting Robert Huth’s hand and the referee, Martin Atkinson, giving a penalty. Up stepped Shaun Maloney who dispatched it calmly and accurately, sending Begovic the wrong way. After 15 minutes Di Santo appealed for a penalty after being sandwiched between two Stoke defenders , but not given. Latics were playing attractive football, but Stoke still looked lively.

Wigan had a blow on 28 minutes when Jean Beausejour went off injured, David Jones coming on in his place. This and the introduction of the skilful, if abrasive, Charlie Adam for Stoke soon afterwards changed the flow of the game. Adam had come on to replace the combative Andy Wilkinson. Cameron had a good effort go narrowly wide, then a wicked free kick from Adam caused mayhem in Latics’ defence until it was cleared. Stoke were to get back in the game after 4o minutes when the ball hit Maynor Figueroa’s hand and Walters scored from the resulting penalty. Wilson’s volley was then pushed on to the bar by Al Habsi. 1-1 at half time.

Latics started the second half well as Arouna Kone broke away in the 49th minute, being chased by Stoke defenders. He held the ball up before unselfishly putting in a neat pass to Franco Di Santo, who scored with the panache of a natural goalscorer. Stoke then really started to control the midfield and put latics under a lot of pressure. They play a little more football than they used to – no more rocket throws from Rory Delap – some neat midfield play these days. However, the end result is still a lobbed ball aimed at Crouch or one of their other many corpulant players.

Despite the lack of sophistication to their approach Stoke did have several half chances before Crouch got his goal in the 76th minute after outjumping Figueroa to a pretty good lob from Walters. Al Habsi was to produce two great saves, one to deny Cameron Jerome, another to somehow get his fingertips to a free kick from Adam that had taken a wicked deflection off Gary Caldwell.

At the other end the substitute Ryo Miyaichi was subject to a debatable slide tackle in the box from another abrasive Stoke player, Ryan Shawcross. In many countries such tackles would be penalized. In this case, the referee decided it was fair.

In the end, honours even.

The Good

Franco Di Santo is clearly coming of age. Martinez has stuck by him and his belief in the young Argentine is paying off. Di Santo proved himself to be a top class central striker last season in terms of his foraging and hold-up play, scoring some spectacular goals along the way. However, there were times when one doubted he had the finishing power that he has shown in the past two Premier League games. His goal at Southampton was finished with aplomb and he made this one look easy.

It was a pleasure to see Di santo and Kone operating as twin strikers, something new in the Martinez era. The tactical adjustment needed following the departure of Victor Moses is looking good. There remains the possibility of a wide player replacing one of the two big central strikers to provide variation.

The Bad

The midfield lost its way in this match. The two Jimmy Macs have been fantastic for so many matches over the past months. This time around they were not at their best. The admirable James McArthur is still not physically at his peak, following injury. He went off after 76 minutes to be replaced by Ben Watson. Latics had already lost the central midfield battle by then. James McCarthy was relatively subdued in this match, but it is hard to criticize a player who week in, week out gives his all for the team.

The loss of Beausejour halfway through the first half disrupted Latics’ rhythm. He is a key player in the system they play. David Jones tried hard but the Chilean was missed.

Player ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 9 – without his superb goalkeeping Stoke would have won.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – looking increasingly comfortable in the Premier League. Strong in the tackle, with excellent distribution.

Gary Caldwell: 8 – played a captain’s role in holding the defence together during Stoke’s second half onslaught..

Maynor Figueroa: 6 – the tenacious Honduran could not quite keep up his outstanding recent form.The penalty decision against him, was a little unlucky, although last season luck tended to favour him in similar sitiuations.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 –solid in defence, supportive in attack.

Jean Beausejour – went off injured in first half.

James McCarthy: 6 – unusually subdued. Howev er, it must be difficult to maintain his intensity of play, match after match.

James McArthur: 6 – worked hard as always. Put some nice passes through. Has become a key player.

Shaun Maloney: 7 – took the penalty with authority. Worked hard.

Franco Di Santo: 8 – an excellent all round performance. Worked very hard, taking his goal really well.

Arouna Kone: 7.5 – a hardworking performance, showing commitment and good technique.

Substitutes

David Jones: 5 – after after a solid performance in central midfield at Nottingham during the week he looked uncomfortable at wing back.

Ben Watson – came on after 76 minutes for James McArthur, but failed to put his stamp on the game. A lack of regular first team football may be the root cause.

Ryo Miyaichi – came on for the last 1o minutes. The Stoke defence did n0t allow him the time and space to make use of his electrifying speed. More to come from this potential match winner.

STOKE CITY – WIGAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW: GOOD FOOTBALL OR ROUTE ONE?

Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.