Blackburn Rovers 0 Wigan Athletic 1: Great escape sealed by Alcaraz

Wigan Athletic will be in the Premier League for an eighth straight year, crowning a truly unbelievable run of results with an away win at Ewood Park last Monday. A draw may well have been enough from the Latics perspective, but Antolin Alcaraz’s late headed winner was fair reward for another display of cultured, confident passing in difficult playing conditions, in a venue that had not been kind to the Latics in years past.

Anything but a win would have spelled the end for Blackburn, a club in free-fall, but they seemed to have accepted their fate from the outset. This is a club in crisis from top to bottom. Injured and demoralized players, furious fans, inept management and clueless owners — however dire our season may have looked two months ago when we were relegation certainties, it never approach that sort of madness.

And so the first half was all Wigan, with Franco Di Santo and Victor Moses both going very close and Ali Al-Habsi only called into action to catch a stray chicken. If the Blackburn support deserves credit for one thing this season, it is for smuggling that chicken past security.  They did find their voices in the second half, however, and were unlucky not to be celebrating a penalty when Emmerson Boyce tangled with Junior Hoilett in the box. Indeed, there was a nervy period in that second half when Blackburn pumped the crosses in from every angle and Wigan rode their luck, but the initiative was swiftly regained in the final quarter and victory was sealed, ironically, off a set play header.

But you knew most of this already. Lets take this moment to celebrate a truly unbelievable couple months for the club.

The Good:

A fantastic away performance. Dominant in the first half, resolute in the second, and fit enough to win it late on a very heavy pitch. A goal from a corner. The team has become stronger at both attacking and defending set plays. Of the starting XI, only Emmerson Boyce and Maynor Figueroa were not Roberto Martinez signings. He has slowly but surely built a team of his own at Wigan. Congratulations to him and his players, whose commitment and skill have earned the best results and highest-level of performance in the club’s history, after a very difficult season.

The Bad:

It is never fun to watch another team and set of supporters go down.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Dealt well with the chicken, and made one or two important saves when the pressure was on in the second half.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Almost gave away a penalty but otherwise good.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Outstanding performance, capped off with the winning goal. His absence for most of the first half of the season was a huge factor in the team’s poor form.

Gary Caldwell: 8.5 — Captain fantastic was honoured with the Fans Player of the Season award in midweek, and truly deserves it. Solid again.

Maynor Figueroa: 8.5 — Honoured by his fellow players as their player of the year, a tremendous achievement for a player who has enjoyed his best season in a Latics shirt.

Jean Beausejour: 8.5 — Caused Blackburn trouble with neat footwork down the left, and supplied the cross for the winning goal.

James McArthur: 8.5 — Gets better and better, his passing is thoroughly efficient and neat, but he also has an eye for a through-ball when he gets forward. Really looking forward to watching his continued growth next season.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — The only thing he is lacking from his game is a goal or five. Unfortunately, as soon as he starts producing those, someone will snap him up. The complete midfielder.

Shaun Maloney: 8.5 — Another bright display by the little magician.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — They couldn’t handle him, but his finishing was not the best this time around.

Franco Di Santo: 8.5 — Decent game with some great build-up play, but missed a great chance in the first few minutes of the game.

Subs:

Conor Sammon: N/A — Might have gotten on the end of a beautiful right-wing delivery, but otherwise didn’t see too much of the ball. A likeable player, but how much longer will he be given to prove himself. A striker will surely be signed this summer following Rodallega’s departure.

Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle Preview: I’m a Believer

What wonderful enthusiastic support Wigan Athletic had at Fulham last Saturday. Stuck  in the worst possible vantage point in the corner behind the goal at the Craven Cottage end they nevertheless gave it all they had. The constant chanting of “I’m a Believer” made a clear statement to the team that they had loyal support, which will be crucial in the remaining three matches.

After the elation of the wonderful displays against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea came the disappointment of that late defeat at Fulham. On top of that, favourable results for fellow strugglers. The bottom line is that Wigan Athletic remain in the mire and the only way to get out of it is to win games. On paper, the Newcastle match looks the hardest of the three remaining. One might point out that playing away at Blackburn is no joy ride and a Wolves team with nothing to play for might be a tough nut to crack. Sometimes teams play better when the pressure is off.  The good news is that QPR and Blackburn have tough fixtures remaining and Aston Villa are now in that same mire, having won only one out of their last 11 games. And Bolton? Who knows? They seem to be able to play poorly and still get good results. They have the easiest fixture list remaining, but can they continue to get away with it?

On the team front Hugo Rodallega is likely to be back and he could appear at some time in the game. Watching the Fulham match,   I got into a conversation with a young man who is an AFC Wimbledon supporter. He was taking a break from his team’s match against Torquay to bring his little brother to Fulham to watch a Premier League encounter.  He said he liked Wigan’s style of football and their organization and hoped they stayed up. However, he said that Latics didn’t seem to have anybody upfront. I explained to him that Di Santo went off injured in the first half with Sammon replacing him. However, the young man had a point. Looking back on the match and the second half in particular, Latics looked jaded and unambitious.  The tough games prior to going to Fulham had taken their toll. More worrying – probably due to fatigue – was the lack of support for the lone centre forward. The midfield was just not going the extra mile and getting into the box. Whether it be Di Santo, Sammon or Rodallega playing there they need some support.

Let’s hope that the bruised and battered among Latics’ first choice starting eleven recover sufficiently well for the Newcastle game. Newcastle are a physically powerful team, brimming with confidence, and it is going to need a lot of running and harassing to knock them off their game. Their away record reads W7D3L6.

That said, they have been  punching above their weight all season.  They have two very dangerous central strikers in Ba and Cisse, a well balanced midfield and a very solid defence marshaled by Coloccini. However, they are definitely beatable. Alcaraz, Caldwell and Figueroa have played wonderfully well in recent games against the likes of Drogba, Rooney and Van Persie. The midfield of Boyce, the Jimmy Macs and Beausejour have competed on at least equal terms with star-studded opposition in the same matches.  Back in October, Latics played pretty well at Newcastle, being unlucky to lose to a superb effort from Cabaye. They certainly matched Newcastle that day. This Saturday, with a tiny bit of luck and fair refereeing decisions, they can certainly beat Newcastle. I’m certainly a believer!