Swansea vs. Wigan Athletic: Goals guaranteed

Of all the clubs that voluntarily or otherwise replaced their managers over the summer break, the Swansea revolution has been the most intriguing. Steve Clarke’s positive start at West Brom has been surprising in its results, but not in approach or style. Norwich’s decline had been gloomily predictable, while their old boss Paul Lambert is going to need years and quite possibly a magic wand to steady Villa’s sinking ship. Andre Villas-Boas endured a rocky start but has started to show signs of the fast-paced attacking football that won him a treble with Porto a year and a half ago. All four of them were relatively known quantities or familiar faces.

Enter Michael Laudrup, and Swansea.

When Brendan Rodgers left to pursue a career in corny one-liners on “Being Liverpool,” many wondered if the style of play would go with him. It is often overlooked that it was not Rodgers, but our very own Roberto Martinez, that instilled such a style of play at Swansea long before Mr. Ok came along. That said, Rodgers deserves enormous credit for an excellent season brimming with possession-based, continental-style football. Until that magical final stretch for the Latics, watching Swansea last season had been like watching Wigan 2.0 — a new and improved version of our team with goals and clean sheets added.

In appointing Laudrup, they made a real statement. As successful as Brendan Rodgers was in Wales, he was never a big name. Appointing the Dane, such a stylish and well-travelled player, brings an air of prestige to the Liberty Stadium. And it opens up markets.

New signings Jonathan De Guzman, Michu and Chico admitted the Dane was the main draw in their respective moves to the Liberty Stadium, while Pablo Hernandez said he was his childhood idol. All four are proven performers in the Spanish league and Michu already looks like the signing of the season at 2 million pounds. Ki Sung-Yeung, signed from Celtic, has been described by the Swansea writer on ESPN FC network as “being able to do everything Joe Allen does at a third of the price.” Tidy business indeed.

And the style has changed. And not necessarily for the worse, from an entertainment perspective. They look a more potent threat in attack, committing more men forward, which in turn renders them a bit more susceptible at the back. Their results are extreme to say the least — starting with 5-0 and 3-0 wins before a 2-2 draw, then a three match losing streak, and another 2-2 draw. At home, they’ve won 3-0, lost 3-0, and drawn 2-2 twice. There appears to be a bit less tikki-takka and more direct attacking play. Still skillful and on the ground, but less patient, and more adventurous. The result is possibly an even more entertaining brand of football, but less reliable.

All of which should contribute to a mouthwatering fixture tomorrow. Wigan’s front three of Koné, Di Santo and Maloney showed tremendous movement and understanding against Everton and were unlucky not to win it for their teammates on the day. If Swansea take the initiative as one would expect playing at home, there should be space on the counter. The key will be who scores first. When Everton visited Liberty Park several weeks ago, Swansea were vulnerable on the break and conceded two more. Reading put two past them before a spirited second half fightback that rescued a point.

Wigan should expect to start with the same XI that faced Everton — unless anyone returns from international duties with injury or severe jet-lag. Maynor Figueroa will be buzzing after Honduras thumped Canada 8-1 to advance to the final phase of CONCACAF qualification. Jean Beausejour fared less well, with Chile losing both of their qualifiers. Ali Al-Habsi’s Oman beat Jordan to keep their dream alive, though Australia’s late winner against Iraq pegged them back on goal difference. James McArthur, Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney all featured for Scotland, while James McCarthy played two matches for the Republic of Ireland. Comparatively, Swansea lost few of their starters to international travel and may have an advantage there.

A difficult one to predict, but all signs point to goals galore. 2-2, anyone?

Wigan vs. Everton: Three points needed

Never has a Premier League table so early in the season so closely resembled the way most of us expect it to finish in May. Yes, Liverpool will climb and West Ham will slip, and Arsenal have had a difficult fixture list. The mid-table teams will shuffle around according to form. But by and large, the top and bottom five include four of those you would expect to be in there. There is no Hull (or Norwich, or Wigan for that matter) flying in 2nd place on enthusiasm and adrenalin — in fact, this year’s candidates for such a feat, Southampton and Reading, are already languishing in the relegation zone.

The team that does occupy 2nd place is Everton. Are they the Newcastle of last season? You certainly don’t get the sense that they’re just keeping the spot warm for a bigger club.

It was clear they meant business in the opening fixture against Manchester United. Players and fans alike were fired up with energy levels high and atmosphere both electric and intimidating at Goodison. After that win, they deflated Michael Laudrup’s high flying (at the time) Swans with a 3-0 away victory, were extremely unfortunate not to beat Newcastle, and took all three points from Villa. They disposed of Southampton quite easily last weekend, and only stumbled away at West Brom. It is fair to say they are a team in form.

Latics meanwhile, have had a topsy turvy start to the season. The thumping 4-1 League Cup wins over Nottingham Forest and West Ham have cushioned the disappointment of missed opportunities in the Premier League. If the kind of finishing we saw in the confident and stylish win at Southampton had been on show against Stoke, Fulham and Sunderland, Latics may well have picked up 9 points and be in that top five. Instead, poor finishing from Wigan has left the side in the bottom five.

Jakarta Jack called for a shake-up in his article earlier this week. Not necessarily wholesale, but a few fresh faces to liven things up. I suspect we might see one or two. For one, I think Mauro Boselli will be involved. His form and finishing in the League Cup and reserves has been sensational. Arouna Koné has been unlucky but really should have scored one or two more than he has, while Di Santo’s form interrupted by injury.

Jordi Gomez’s suspension has been repealed, but Di Santo’s return to fitness should in turn signal a return to the bench for the Spaniard. Ryo Miyaichi and Callum McManaman have been used as impact subs in the last two matches but must be in contention. Antolin Alcaraz can’t return soon enough in defence.

Everton are looking scary. Leighton Baines is practically a playmaker at left back, and an excellent one at that. His partnership with Steven Pienaar down the left is extremely dangerous and Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis will have to be alert. Kevin Mirallas looks a quality player. Nikica Jelavic has continued last season’s form with three goals in five league matches. Marouane Fellaini is attracting interest from bigger clubs. Their defence is one of the most established in the league having played together for a number of seasons. And with Victor Anichebe, Seamus Coleman and Steven Naismith on the bench, they have depth.

But Latics need three points to arrest this slump of late — I suspect there will be a real urgency around the DW tomorrow. If they take their chances, they can get them.

Sunderland vs. Wigan: Time for a shake-up?

While Latics were missing three important players in the home loss to Fulham, the Capital One squad’s performance will surely weigh on Roberto’s mind as he selects his XI for the tricky trip to the Stadium of Light.

Mauro Boselli is now the club’s leading scorer with three and must be pushing for contention, particularly if Franco Di Santo fails to recover from the calf injury sustained against Manchester United. All three of his goals have been well-taken, but the chip for Latics’ third against West Ham was sublime. David Jones was another strong performer in London hoping to force his way into the starting XI after a rusty Ben Watson performance last weekend, though this too will depend on whether James McArthur is fit enough to reclaim his spot in midfield.

What is certain is that options abound. Young attackers Ryo Miyaichi and Callum McManaman have had an impact on the last two matches and have left Albert Crusat in the shadows. Emmerson Boyce has done nothing wrong, but surely Ronnie Stam will get a chance to impress in the league at some point. And will Roberto drop Ivan Ramis after his impressive mid-week goal, if Antolin Alcaraz is fit to return from injury?

The hope is that such healthy competition will translate into intensity and focus on the pitch. Sunderland away is always a tricky fixture, but particularly so on this occasion as they seek their first win of the season. They missed out narrowly at West Ham last weekend and were held at home to Liverpool the week before. Steven Fletcher has hit the ground running in his new stripes with four goals in three games and will be a threat, while James McLean and Stephane Sessegnon will provide the pace behind him. Seb Larsson’s free-kicks are always dangerous, and Adam Johnson is on the books these days. As their 0-0 draw away at Arsenal will attest, their defense is well-versed and midfield organized in the Martin O’Neill tradition.

 

Predicition:  Sunderland are a tough side, but with the exception of the second half at Old Trafford, our away form has been sensational. 1-1.

Related: if you haven’t already, please check out my interview on Salut! Sunderland, as part of their pre-match coverage.

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Wigan vs. Fulham: Battle of the strikers as Hugo returns

Wigan’s record Premier League goalscorer Hugo Rodallega returns to the DW Stadium this weekend with his new club, but most eyes will be on his illustrious strike partner, Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian notched his first two goals in a Fulham shirt in the 3-0 win over West Brom, while Hugo hit the post from three yards out, something he specializes in. The Colombian has already amassed more shots per minute than any other striker in the league — it is no wonder Mauro Boselli didn’t get any service playing between Hugo and Charles N’Zogbia. But the reception should be warm for a player who worked his socks off in that lone striker role, scored some very important goals, and developed a warm relationship with the Latics support in his years with the club.

Interest should not be fully reserved for Fulham’s strikeforce, however, as Roberto came out with a public promise of playing opportunities for Boselli yesterday. Franco Di Santo has been excellent with two brilliant finishes in four matches, really beginning to fulfill his huge potential; Arouna Koné is still adapting but has pedigree and looks a little sharper with his touch as the days go by.

Assuming Antolin Alcaraz is not yet ready to return to action, Roberto should be able to field the same XI as he did at Old Trafford. But he has options if he is looking to mix things up. Home games like this where we would expect to control possession should theoretically be ideal for Boselli, with crosses flying in from both sides. Ryo Miyaichi looks fast and skillful and offers something closer to what Victor Moses did. There is cover in midfield, though it is hard to imagine any interference there.

Aside from Swansea, whose style of play was instilled by Roberto long before Brendan Rodgers or Michael Laudrup came along, Martin Jol’s Fulham have become one of the more pleasant teams to watch. They’ve lost the excellent Moussa Dembele, playmaker-in-chief Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey. But if fit, Bryan Ruiz is a very exciting player behind the front two of Rodallega and Berbatov. New left winger Alexander Kacaniklic looks lively and has already contributed goals and assits, while Damien Duff has had an effective start to the season on the right. Steve Sidwell has been waiting for regular football for years and now has it. He will provide steel in midfield, though he can play a bit too. And the defense is well established, with Haangeland and Hughes, and Schwarzer behind them always difficult to beat. They were the one team we didn’t outplay in the fantastic run-in last season.

So a tricky but intriguing encounter on the cards. The good news is that both Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson have moved on and therefore cannot score against us anymore — for Fulham, anyway. The bad is that Berbatov has a very decent record against us, while Hugo has scored a few at the DW as well. Lets hope this is a day for Latics’s stikers to rise up and keep them in the shadows.

Manchester United vs. Wigan: Will jet lag tell?

One of the problems with a global recruitment policy as far flung as Wigan’s — Oman, Japan, and Honduras for a start — is that when international break comes round, half of the starting XI are likely to be jet lagged for the ensuing Premier League match.

Latics famously under-performed in the home loss to Swansea last season after players like Maynor Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz had only landed in Manchester a day before the match. This year, ahead of the always daunting trip to Old Trafford, Roberto has again made the point that it is extremely difficult to prepare for a match without knowing who you have at your disposal.

Players like Antolin Alcaraz have played two matches in the past week, sandwiched by two day-long trips to the other side of the world, and will likely need — but not get — two full days to recover. Even if they survive the 90 minutes, proper rest and recuperation is never achieved.

Manchester United supporters might point to similar troubles, but replacing a tired Luis Antonio Valencia with Ashley Young or Nani is a bit different than, say, Adrian Lopez on for Antolin Alcaraz.

The Paraguayan (groin) is one of two major doubts for the Latics going into the fixture, with Jean Beausejour the second (hamstring). If Alcaraz misses out, we’ll expect to see the Ramis-Caldwell-Figueroa trio that figured against Stoke at the back. If Beausejour doesn’t make it, Maynor Figueroa will be pushed forward into the wingback position. If neither are available, the beneficiary will likely be David Jones at left wingback. The midfield should be the standard Scottish/Irish diamond, with Di Santo and Koné up front. The only variation in the attacking third I can imagine is the more conservative addition of Jordi Gomez at the expense of one of the strikers. Or — you never know — the introduction of the lightning-quick Ryo Miyaichi for added counter-attacking threat.

Manchester United, meanwhile, only have two international strikers to choose from after Robin van Persie picked up a knock  playing for his country. Wayne Rooney is still sidelined thanks to that unfortunate encounter with Hugo Rodallega’s boots. They’ll have to rely on Chicharito Hernandez and Danny Wellbeck, which will undoubtedly feel quite a hardship.

The clubs live in different realities. Watching Wigan outplay and topple Ferguson’s side on that special evening last April was one the greatest football spectator experiences I can remember. They played with belief, desire and no shortage of skill. One suspects that the ultimate significance of said result will not be lost on United’s players or fans — and they’ll be looking to put it behind them this Saturday at Old Trafford. But the gap on the pitch narrows each time these two teams play each other. If Latics can retain that belief and sin miedo attitude, a first result at Old Trafford is possible.