Cardiff City 1 Wigan Athletic 2 –Ben puts Latics into the last eight

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Wigan Athletic showed great resolve and application in overcoming an insipid Cardiff side to reach the last eight of the FA Cup. It is a remarkable achievement for a team that has played 41 matches this season, more than any other in the four divisions. Once again it was Ben Watson’s goal which was to prove the winner – this time through a rocket shot from thirty yards out.

Rosler had given Leon Barnett a well-deserved rest, having played in all but one game this season. His replacement was Ivan Ramis, who was to show Cardiff that they made a mistake in not signing him during the January transfer window. Roger Espinoza and Jordi Gomez came into midfield, making a foursome with Chris McCann and Ben Watson. Callum McManaman was brought in on the left flank, with Marc-Antoine Fortune up front.

Latics took the lead after 18 minutes when Jordi Gomez showed great resolve in winning the ball from Magnus Wolff Eikram and bustling his way past Kevin Theophile-Catherine on the edge of the penalty box. Gomez cut the ball back from the by-line with great precision to find Chris McCann who crisply hit the ball home.

Cardiff started to claw their way back into the game and Wilfried Zaha started to look dangerous. In the 27th minute Zaha broke into the penalty box and, although Ramis managed to block the ball, Frasier Campbell was to score an opportunist equalizer from the resulting melee.

Minutes later Zaha put in a lovely cross to the far post where Campbell eluded Emmerson Boyce, but put his header wide. Cardiff were soon to rue that lost opportunity in the 40th minute when Gomez tapped a free kick to Watson some 30 yards from goal. Cardiff put up a defensive wall  of only two men and Watson showed his superb technique by hitting a rocket shot into the left hand corner of the net.

Ex-Sevilla defender Juan Cala headed the ball against the post when it looked easier to score shortly after, but Latics went into half time with their lead intact.

Cardiff came out showing more resolve in the second half, but their neater midfield play could not be converted into goals as the Wigan defence held firm.

Josh McEachran replaced Watson in the midfield holding role after 58 minutes. James McClean had replaced McManaman after 67 minutes, but most of the play was in the Wigan half.  Stephen Crainey came on to bolster the defence after 78 minutes as Latics continued to be penned in their area through the Cardiff pressure. However, Ali Al-Habsi was on fine form and made good saves from Zaha, Noone and Cala and Latics held on for a deserved victory.

The Good

Wigan scored two well taken goals and defended with great resolution.  Ramis came in for Barnett and showed an excellent understanding with Boyce in the centre of defence. With both Markus Holgersson and Thomas Rogne on the bench Latics are looking strong in that area.

Al-Habsi goes from strength to strength on his return from injury and is starting to look like the star he was a couple of years ago before the shoulder problem.

The midfielders worked hard, with Gomez playing a more advanced role. McCann showed once again what a good signing he has been, not only through his well taken goal, but also in his defensive cover.

McManaman, and McClean after him, looked lively but were often short of support as was Fortune who looked a particularly lone central striker.

Rosler has instilled a mental toughness into his squad and they are not afraid to grind out results if necessary. The defence has tightened up considerably.

The Bad

After putting so much energy into this match there is a home game with Barnsley coming up on Tuesday. Rosler will once again have to shuffle his pack.

Player Ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 8 – excellent throughout.

James Perch: 6 – put in another solid defensive shift at right back.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – a fine return by the classy Spaniard. Anticipated play expertly and excellent in his distribution.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – marshalled his defence superbly, solid throughout.

Jean Beausejour: 6 – played a mainly defensive role. Left back is not his natural position, but played with determination.

Ben Watson: 7 – a cracking goal and a good performance until he went off after 58 minutes.

Chris McCann: 7 – a key player in Rosler’s squad. Did well to get into the box to take his goal. Went close to getting another goal in the second half when he got a foot to a long cross, forcing a good save from the keeper.

Roger Espinoza: 6 – worked as hard as always and deserves more opportunities in the starting lineup.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – worked hard and put through some nice passes. Showed determination in getting through physical challenges to set up the first goal. Latics’ main creative outlet.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: 5 – not his day.

Callum McManaman: 6 – worked hard, but could not break through.

Substitutes

Josh McEachran: – came on after 58 minutes. Looked comfortable in the midfield holding role.

James McClean: – tried hard. Had one good run when he cut in from the right to hit a rasping drive – but straight at goalkeeper Marshall.

Stephen Crainey: – came on for the final 12 minutes.

Latinos ready for Brighton

Both Jean Beausejour and Roger Espinoza have had a busy week, but neither would complain if Owen Coyle put them in the lineup against Brighton on Saturday.

What are the chances?

Beausejour played for the first 81 minutes for Chile at Wembley on Friday, then came on as a substitute after only 8 minutes against Brazil in Toronto on Tuesday, completing the remainder of the match.

Beausejour was a key component of Chile’s fine 2-0 win over England. His expert close control in tight situations, together with his patient approach, helped Chile build dangerous moves down the right hand side of England’s defence.

He came early in Toronto because of an injury to midfield dynamo Marcelo Diaz. Brazil went 1-0 up after 10 minutes but Chile got one back when Eduardo Vargas scored a spectacular goal from his headed pass after 71 minutes

Chile had been far from overwhelmed against Brazil, but eventually went down 2-1 to an 80th minute goal from Robinho.

Chile are certainly seeking the right kind of opposition in preparation for the trip to Brazil in June.

Espinoza played for the first 64 minutes against Brazil in Miami, in front of a crowd of 71,000. When he went off Honduras were losing 2-0. They let in another three without him. Check out  this video clip to see how impressive Espinoza looked in that match. Bleacher Report rated him Honduras’ best performer.

Espinoza came on after 46 minutes in the 2-2 draw with Ecuador in Houston on Tuesday. Honduras were trailing 1-0 at half time, but got to 2-1 ahead until Ecuador equalized in the 89th minute. Both teams had been down to 10 men, Wilson Palacios having been sent off after 84 minutes.

Honduras used a total of 12 substitutes in those two matches, in an attempt to give a wide range of players an opportunity to show what they could do against quality opposition. That Espinoza played 109 minutes in the two games is therefore not a reflection upon his performance.

Brazil are going to be the team to beat in June and Honduras needed to play strong opposition outside their usual opponents in CONCACAF. Ecuador are no push-overs either, having finished fourth in the highly competitive South American qualifying competition.

Despite playing well against world class opposition for their countries neither Beausejour nor Espinoza is likely to make the starting lineup against Brighton.

Beausejour missed recent Latics matches through a foot injury, but currently has to compete with James McClean and Callum McManaman for a place on the left flank.

Despite a Man of the Match performance in Kazan, Espinoza was not retained in the starting lineup at Yeovil. In fact he was brought off the bench with five minutes to go. Coyle is blessed with a strong squad of holding midfield players and has rotated them well, with the exception of Espinoza who he has repeatedly snubbed.

In the Brazil match Espinoza played wide in left midfield, not his best position, but he nevertheless looked very involved, winning the ball and putting in some excellent passes.

Coyle has lined up with both Jordi Gomez and James McArthur in wide midfield positions, with little success. He brought Espinoza off the bench in the Charlton match to play wide on the left and the Honduran did not do badly.

Juan Carlos Garcia was also in the Honduras squad for both matches and came on as a substitute after 81 minutes against Brazil. Coyle still has not started him at left back, although he did play in left midfield in the League Cup loss to Manchester City. It would be a big surprise if he started on Saturday.

There is good news for Latics in that the excellent Ivan Ramis is ready to compete for a place, after 10 months out through injury. It will interesting to see if Coyle is willing to put Ramis in the rotation with Leon Barnett, Thomas Rogne and Ryan Shotton for the centre back positions.

At the time of his injury at Fulham in January, Ramis was looking a quality Premier League defender –  a good reader of the game with a strong tackle. Ramis will have to adjust to the high ball game played by so many teams in the Championship, but at 6’2” he is quite capable in the air.

Passing the ball out of defence is something Ramis is good at and the other centre backs in the squad should take note. Too often they have taken the easy option of the long ball or the pass back to the goalkeeper, the end result more often than not being Latics losing possession.

It looks like Will Keane will be shortly be signed on loan.  Although Keane’s signing would look like  a positive move we will have to wait and see if Dave Whelan is going to allow Coyle to make a big money purchase of an experienced striker with a proven record of success.

With a busy month coming up it is going to be interesting to see how Coyle rotates his squad.

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A Return to Alcaraz and a Settled Defence?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Wigan Athletic v Chelsea - DW Stadium

Wigan Athletic’s injury woes continue to hit their chances of Premier League survival.  The hamstring injury suffered by Emmerson Boyce in the recent away game at Stoke was another hammer blow to a defensive line already short of Ivan Ramis and Antolin Alcaraz. Add to that Gary Caldwell continuing to take the field despite a hip injury. Injuries have also taken away midfielder Ben Watson and the speedy wingers, Albert Crusat and Ryo Miyaichi. But it is in the defence where the injuries have been most disruptive, with Roberto Martinez constantly having to change his back line over the course of the season. The end result has been a lack of cohesion, with too many soft goals being given away.

The last time Roberto Martinez was able to field together his most cohesive line of central defenders – Antolin Alcaraz, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa – was at Blackburn in May of 2012. It was that trio that provided the defensive strength and backbone for Wigan to have an outstanding end to the 2011-2012 season.  Alcaraz has only started two games this season.  It has been a long and slow recuperation from his groin injury. There has been speculation among some fans that it is not the injury that has been keeping the big Paraguayan out, but that his contract runs out at the end of the season. Given Wigan’s predicament one hopes that it is not the latter case, although Alcaraz has had long spells out due to injury in each of his three seasons at the club, making it less likely that his contract would be renewed. For the moment Alcaraz is needed to help Wigan stay clear of relegation.

There is a possibility that Alcaraz will make his return in Saturday’s FA Cup tie at Huddersfield. Were he to come through unscathed he would then be available for the crunch game at Reading the following weekend. Certainly Alcaraz’s return would give Martinez the possibility of putting together that back line which gelled so well at a crucial time last season. However, it would also open up options of releasing Paul Scharner and Maynor Figueroa as wing backs.

Wigan fans will hope that Emmerson Boyce will be fit for the Reading game. The improvement in the 33 year old’s passing since the arrival of Martinez has been huge. Boyce has become an excellent wing back, solid in defence, tireless in approach and even scoring spectacular goals in attack. In his seventh season at the club,  Boyce too has been susceptible to injury in recent years.  He completed 26 games last season and 22 the previous year. A fully fit Emmerson Boyce is another key factor in Wigan’s bid to avoid relegation.

It has been fascinating to watch Paul Scharner settle back so quickly into the Latics team. He looks a natural in that right centre back position, although he still has to work on his alignment with his fellow central defenders. Scharner has always been a useful central defender, if he himself has preferred to play in midfield.  One hopes he can maintain his discipline and resist the urge to commit himself too far forward, putting the defence at risk.

A settled back line is of paramount importance to Wigan Athletic’s chances of staying in the Premier League this season. Let’s hope that the injury jinx will no longer rear its ugly head. Even though Ivan Ramis is out for the reminder of the season, it would help Roberto Martinez greatly if all the other experienced defenders in his squad were to be available.

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A Need for Height?

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Roman Golobart

In the early 1990s Arsenal had a couple of central  defenders – Tony Adams and Steve Bould – who my father used to call ‘gaspipes’. I never really asked my dad to explain what he meant by that term, but always assumed it had something to do with their height and shape: tall and slim. Adams was 6′ 3″ , Bould an inch taller. Not surprisingly these two central defenders were key to Arsenal’s successes in that era, when the long ball was in vogue. If a high centre were to be launched into the Arsenal box you could bet your bottom dollar that one of the two would be on to it.

Let’s get back to modern day. Brede Hangeland of Fulham is 6′ 61/2″ tall – and that, together with his lean shape  –  would certainly place him in  the ‘gaspipe’ category. Not surprisingly he dominates the air in the penalty boxes at each end of the field, very solid in defence, dangerous from corner kicks. His regular defensive partner, Aaron Hughes,  is a mere 6’0″ tall. Per Mertesacker of Arsenal is the second tallest Premier League defender at 6′ 6″. Both of Stoke City’s uncompromising central defenders, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross are 6′ 3 “. The same stats apply to the Liverpool pairing of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. By and large Premier League teams typically have two central defenders well above 6 ft tall.

Latics have no gaspipes in their senior squad. According to the club website,  of the central defenders who have played for Wigan this season:  Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis are the tallest at 6’2”. Maynor Figueroa and Adrian Lopez are 6′ 0 “, Gary Caldwell and Emmerson Boyce  are 5’11”.  The two tallest players, Alcaraz and Ramis,  have played together only twice, in the opening two games of the season.

When Roberto Martinez installed a trio of central defenders midway through last season he bolstered Latics’ aerial defences. All too often over these past years Wigan have been undone with a ‘soft’ headed goal from the opposition at a crucial time in the game. Phil Jagielka’s recent  goal for Everton and Ryan Nelsen’s for QPR are two that most Premier League defences would have prevented. You can add to that Hoolahan’s goal for Norwich, although that was more down to the positioning of defenders than their ability to leap. Latics have lacked that type of tall, rugged centre back who can dominate the aerial defences.

One of the pioneers of recruiting big players in the old Football League was Jimmy Sirrel, a canny Scot who was a successful manager at Notts County for over a decade around the 70s. When asked on television why he recruited so many big players he said “If I have the choice between a good big ‘un and a good little ‘un,  I go for the good big ‘un.” Larry Lloyd’s promotion winning side of 1981-82 was probably the physically biggest team Wigan had ever had. Both Lloyd and Colin Methven in central defence were around the 6’3″ mark. Add to them the 6’5″ centre forward Les Bradd (previously with Sirrel at Notts County), 6’2″ Graham Barrow and the other 6 footers – Joe Hinnegan, Kevin Langley, Peter Houghton – and you can see why they were well prepared to cope with the aerial and physical challenges of the old Division 4.

Roberto Martinez’ style of football is far from that of the old Notts County and Larry Lloyd’s Wigan team. The current Latics team is typified by its elegance of passing from defensive positions, more than by  its physical and aerial power. The top tier of football in England has moved on from the times of the long-ball game, but there is still a need for strong aerial defence. This season injuries have prevented Wigan from fielding their first choice back three, the result being a lack of cohesion as players have had to be shuffled around. Although the lack of a towering central defender puts Wigan at some disadvantage, it is the lack of  cohesion and defensive discipline that has cost them dearly. Too many penalties and soft goals have been given away. Having an established back three, who play well as a unit, is the key to success in the second half of the season.

Hopefully Antolin Alcaraz will soon return to fortify the centre of defence. Wigan’s best defensive performances have tended to  coincide with his consistent presence in the starting lineup. One for the future is the young Catalan, Roman Golobart, who is 6’4″ and has strong physical presence. Providing he has the necessary pace to match he could become that towering central defender that the defence has been lacking.

Is par for the course still good enough?

Last November, Wigan Athletic were bottom of the Premier League with just 5 points from 11 matches. At present, they lie in 14th place with 11 points, averaging a point per match? If they were to maintain that point rate  through the season, they would end on 38 points, usually enough to stay up. But is staying up sufficient for Wigan Athletic supporters and its management anymore?

Lets look back on the season so far. The team has won 3 league matches out of 11. With the exception of Ivan Ramis and Arouna Kone, this is the same nucleus that won 7 out of their last 9 games last season against stronger opposition. So why have they not done better?

It cannot be put down to Ramis and Kone. Apart from his difficult Premier League baptism against Chelsea, Ramis has been solid, getting better game by game. Despite speaking almost no English he has become the de facto captain in the absence of Caldwell. Given that he was previously captain of RCD Mallorca for several years, it is no surprise. Kone has made an excellent adaptation to English football. Strong, speedy, skilful and unselfish he has already 4 league goals – Moses only scored 6 in the whole of last season. Both are excellent signings. Moreover Martinez has moved on with his tactical formation without the maverick Moses (exciting,  but frustrating) to be able to play with two big strikers and a mobile playmaker.

Over these past years one has seen Wigan Athletic teams that have been either disorganised or short of a real game plan. That cannot be said of the current team, who play within a well-created tactical system that can pose problems for even the finest of Premier League teams. Moreover, the players know their roles and show a high degree of commitment. Roberto Martinez talks about this being the best squad he has had – and given the budget he has to work under, he has done a marvelous job at recruiting the players at his disposal.

So why are Wigan Athletic not at least in mid-table position at this stage? You could blame referees or say they have had some bad luck and there is validity in such arguments. However, so could many other clubs stuck in the lower reaches of the table. Losing at home to Chelsea with their wealth of talent is not going to be a surprise, but home losses to potentially mid-table teams like Fulham and West Bromwich is hard to take. Both matches were characterized by giving away soft goals and a lack of finishing. The old failings continue to haunt. Player-for-player, neither Fulham nor West Brom is superior to what Latics have, except maybe Berbatov for the Londoners. However, what both those teams have is a deep-rooted self confidence, which Wigan Athletic just don’t seem to have.

Roberto Martinez has put together a team that could beat any team in the division on their day – a remarkable achievement. His players are largely international journeymen or players who have come in from weaker leagues. Nevertheless they have the skills to compete with the best. Whether he can instill that kind of self-belief in his players, like those in the higher-placed teams continues to be his challenge. He has done everything else really well – a superb tactical system, motivated players – but is it within his powers to convince his players that they can be as good as those earning two or three times their salaries in the Premier League? Without that, Wigan Athletic are going to be involved in yet another relegation dog fight.