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.

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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.

Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester United 0: Brilliant Latics finally get their reward

An inspirational Wigan Athletic performance characterized by confidence, style and determination earned the club its first ever win against Manchester United last night. Roberto’s men were thoroughly dominant until taking the lead, and resolute in their defense of it. United were limited to one shot on target and three corners, something I doubt any other club has managed this season.

It is hard to recall a prouder moment. This sort of form has been building for some time now. We deserved points at Stamford Bridge last weekend, and have now suffered from three unfairly disallowed goals in two matches. But there is real belief in this squad, from back to front. Indeed, before the famous wins of late we had outplayed Norwich, West Brom, Aston Villa and Everton without burying them. It is amazing what a bit of confidence does for you — goals are suddenly popping up from all sorts of places, from the center of defense, to super-subs, to the excellent and invigorated Shaun Maloney.

Roberto Martinez’s vision appears to be finally coming together. His team has shed the defensive fragility that cost us in the first half of the season with his three-man centre of defense. The Alcaraz-Caldwell-Figueroa axis gets stronger every match and has wonderful balance. His deployment of Emmerson Boyce as the right wingback — a decision questioned by some of us due to Ronnie Stam’s excellent mid-season form — has allowed him to seamlessly switch to a 4-5-1 when the team needs to re-gain possession or push forward in numbers. Jean Beausejour must go down in history as our best ever January transfer window signing, making a huge contribution in a problem position. Shaun Maloney has injected verve and direct, attacking play in his advanced midfield role.  The squad is strong, with replacements for just about everyone in the squad.

Wigan started this match with clear attacking intent. James McCarthy had a left-footed rocket tipped over the bar by De Gea; the lively Victor Moses zigzagged into the box only to smash his curled effort off Rio Ferdinand’s behind; James McArthur was first to every ball, while Antolin Alcaraz enjoyed a remarkable attacking performance with frequent surging runs. United threatened only twice; first through Chicharito Hernandez, who failed to sneak past Gary Caldwell, and later through Ryan Giggs, whose outside-of-the-boot cross was deflected for a corner by Maynor Figueroa. But the first half was really all Wigan, and pressure finally told when Victor Moses rose to head a Shaun Maloney cross into the back of the net. Celebrations ensued, with Phil Dowd appearing to give the goal, only for the linesman to call the goal back moments later. Latics had been denied a goal once again — the third in less than 90 minutes — by a linesman. This time, Gary Caldwell was adjudged to have impeded David De Gea’s path to the ball. Replays showed the Wigan man did nothing but stand his ground, and was in fact shoved toward De Gea by a United player. Martinez was furious, and Dowd’s reception by the crowd at half-time was not one he’ll have savoured.

Tom Cleverley was brought on in an attempt to regain possession, but Wigan started the second half as they ended the first. Jean Beausejour was busy down the left and his slightly clumsy attempt to get a cross past Johnny Evans while falling over was incorrectly given a corner. With the linesman on the other side of the pitch it was certainly a tough one for the referee — only one or two of the five or six camera angles in slow motion replay made it clear the ball had indeed bundled off Beausejour’s leg. But there was no question about what ensued. Shaun Maloney received a short pass, dummied past Rooney and sensationally curled the ball past De Gea to give his team the lead. This time the flags stayed down, and Latics celebrated.

The rest of the match was largely an exercise in patient, organized defending. That Wigan only picked up one yellow card — Di Santo for dissent after himself being fouled — is truly remarkable. There was no lunging, no diving in. There were tense moments, but the team was organized and never looked like falling apart. United had one or two half-chances, with Danny Wellbeck breaking but forced to shoot from a wide angle, and Nani causing a bit of panic with quick footwork and a low cross. But if anything, Latics had clearer chances to increase their lead than United did to equalise. Conor Sammon, on for Maloney, went on a fantastic run down the left wing and into the box, laying off neatly for Diame, who had an effort blocked before squaring to Moses, whose shot deflected wide. The Nigeria international was a constant threat with his strength and running.

It took five minutes of injury time, but the final whistle went and Wigan supporters from the DW to Jakarta and Boston jumped up and down to the tune of “We-Are-Staying-Up-WE-ARE-STAYING-UP!”

The Good:

Everything from the quality of football played, to the confidence it was played with, the effort and desire. The pride for the shirt. The support.

The Bad:

Nothing except the understandable signs of fatigue after two outstanding performances against the two most successful British teams of recent times.

Refereeing Decisions:

Lets get the facts straight amid media coverage of Fergie’s complaints. There were two controversial decisions each way. We had a goal disallowed incorrectly, and Johnny Evans should have been sent off for a second yellow card offense. They should have had a goal-kick instead of a corner, and did not get a penalty when a driven ball deflected off the sliding Maynor Figueroa’s leg, onto his arm. What would you rather have — 1-0 against 10 men? Or a goal-kick and a penalty?

Not Over Yet:

This was an unforgettable football match for all associated with the club, and we’re all buzzing with pride. But the relegation battle is tight. QPR beat Swansea and remain above us on goal difference. Bolton are two behind but have a game in hand. Blackburn are only three adrift. Save the Carling Cup memories of our first season, Arsenal away is typically a nightmare fixture for us, and could be a wake-up call. Specially with tired legs from last night’s exertions. Newcastle’s form is unbelievable, and Fulham have real quality this season. So there is a long road ahead. McArthur and Martinez himself came out with appropriate “Lets keep our feet on the ground” quotes this morning. Lets hope we can do it. If this level of performance can be sustained for five more matches, it will be an enjoyable month and a half — but it’s a big ask.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Only had to make one save, but it was an important one from a low Danny Wellbeck shot.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Outstanding in defense, but also got forward to good effect in the first half. Looked as comfortable on that ball as anyone.

Gary Caldwell: 9 — The captain is becoming a fan favorite. Clean sheet against Man United.

Maynor Figueroa: 9 — Fantastic from the Honduran. Took a few knocks. Has really thrived in the left-centre-half role.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Didn’t get forward as much as Beausejour, but kept Ashley Young out of the game.

Jean Beausejour: 8.5 — Caused trouble down the left in the first half, defended strongly in the second. Kept Valencia relatively quiet.

James McArthur: 9 — It’s amazing how much ground this fella covers. First to every ball. Sets an example.

James McCarthy: 8.5 — Neat in possession, a good left-footed strike. Pace and power in midfield.

Shaun Maloney: 9 — Brilliant. Troubled United all game with his stepovers and flicks. In the same position, Jordi would pass the ball sideways far too often. Maloney is direct, positive, confident. What a finish.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Deserved a goal for his hard work. Ran his socks off with good skill, though lacked a cool head with the final shot on occasion.

Franco Di Santo: 8 — His work ethic and target man play are simply fantastic. If only we could all chip in and buy him a goal.

The Twelfth Man: 10 — The supporters are behind the team more than ever, and it shows. From those who have been gathering at the stadium hours early to greet the team as they arrive, to the Washington DC supporters club at Lucky Bar, and my amazing wife (chair of the Figueroa Fan Club) who has to try and watch these matches as her maniacal husband shouts, drools, laughs and cries his way through them. Lets enjoy this moment and keep it up for the remaining five fixtures.

Subs:

Mo Diame: 7 — Brought on for the tiring Franco Di Santo, who had also taken a few knocks, to help regain possession. Took about 10 minutes to get into the game, such was the pace of it. Unlucky to have his shot blocked, did some good tackling.

Conor Sammon: 8 — Great sub appearance by the big man, putting in the miles but also showing some skill on a mazy run that might have ended in a second (or third) goal.