Maribor 2 Wigan Athletic 1 – unlucky Latics go out with dignity

The Ljudskivrt Stadium in, Maribor

The Ljudskivrt Stadium in, Maribor

A controversial refereeing decision was a hammer blow for a Latics side that was back to playing good football and a goal ahead. If they could have kept their lead they would have qualified for the Round of 32, as Zulte Waregem were to lose at home to Rubin Kazan. The decision made for uneven contest and hard though Latics tried it was to prove not enough.

It is ironic that this should be the match in which the referee became the issue. Up to this point the standard of arbitrage in the Europa League games had made that of the Championship look woeful in comparison.

Latics were a goal up when a shot from the edge of the box hit Chris McCann’s arm. McCann had turned his back to the shot and the ball hit an upraised arm. It was clearly not intentional, but the Polish referee Szymon Marciniak not only gave a penalty, but also gave McCann a yellow card. Since he already had one after 25 minutes he was sent off.

In the space of a minute Latics went from euphoria to despair. They had matched the home side, playing neat possession football, going ahead with a penalty from the rejuvenated Jordi Gomez after a foul on Nick Powell in the 41st minute. Not long before the Spaniard’s superb free kick had hit the post. Then a minute later came the worst case scenario, although Carson parried Dejan Mezga’s  penalty kick on to the post the ball rebounded back to the same player who scored.

Uwe Rosler put out as positive a lineup as he could, given the resources he had.  James Perch came in at right back, Thomas Rogne in the centre of defence and Jean Beausejour at left back. James McArthur and Chris McCann were in the holding midfield roles. Callum McManaman played on the right, Roger Espinoza nominally on the left. Nick Powell was the lone centre forward, with Jordi Gomez playing in the ‘hole’ behind him

It was refreshing to see the style of football Latics played, even in the early stages. The ball was on the ground, they looked comfortable and although they did not create clear-cut chances early on they nullified the home side.

It clearly suited the ex-Martinez players, who looked a class above what they were under Owen Coyle. Gomez, Beausejour and McArthur in particular looked classy and clearly enjoying their game.

The sending off completely changed the match. Wigan brought on Ben Watson after half time to replace McCann, having to sacrifice McManaman who had looked lively on the right wing.

10 men Latics continued to play with spirit and skill but a superb strike from outside the area by Zeljko Filipovic put the hosts 2-1 up. As Wigan pushed forward Nusmir Fajic took advantage of the space available and should have added to the home team’s tally, but hit his shot wife when one on one with Carson.

From then on it was all Wigan. The Maribor penalty area was besieged, especially in the last 10 minutes of the match.

Marc-Antoine Fortune had come on for Powell after 65 minutes and he was unlucky in the closing minutes as Handanovic, at full stretch, pushed his shot away. The big keeper then saved a powerful drive from Watson.

In the end Latics could not get that equalizer and Maribor marched on to the next round.

The Good

What a pleasure it was to see Latics playing good football again. They looked like a re-energised team.

There was a clear tactical formation and each player played his part for the full 90 minutes. The distribution from defence was much better as the centre backs resisted hoofing the ball or making back passes to the goalkeeper. Instead they made short passes to midfield players who dropped back to receive.  Carson managed to minimize his habitual punts up field, instead trying to find a team mate closer by.

Playing Beausejour at left back was an attacking move. It is always going to be a gamble, given his defensive frailties. However, the Chilean effectively played as an extra attacker, helping build up moves and putting over tantalizing crosses. Having Espinoza playing on the same side meant that there was going to be some cover if the ball was lost.

Jordi Gomez was a revelation in the creative midfield role. He was tireless in his efforts and his passing was excellent. There has been a lot of conjecture as to whether Gomez can function in the high tempo style that Rosler is going to demand. This performance suggests he can make the transition.

The Bad

Latics still lack a central striker who can make a difference. Maribor were rocking in the last ten minutes, but there was just no one to put the loose balls into the net.

Player Ratings

Scott Carson: 7 – did all that was asked of him defensively, including a penalty save. Rosler has clearly spoken to him about his distribution, which was much improved.

James Perch: 6 – looked much better on the right flank than on the left.

Leon Barnett: 6 – solid in defence.

Thomas Rogne: 6 – solid and his distribution was much better.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – back in from the cold. A fine performance of attacking full back play.

James McArthur: 7 – deservedly made captain for the night. Looked like the player he was under Martinez. Substituted after 73 minutes.

Chris McCann: 6 – unlucky to be sent off.

Jordi Gomez: 8 – endured trying times under Owen Coyle, but must have impressed his new manager with an excellent performance.

Callum McManaman: 7 – although often surrounded by two or three defenders he stuck to his task and looked useful. One superb cross could have led to a goal, but the central defender got to the ball before Powell. Substituted after 45 minutes.

Nick Powell: 7 – good to see him back on form. He could well be a permanent fixture at centre forward under Rosler. Substituted after 65 minutes.

Roger Espinoza: 6- not at his best and ran the risk of being sent off after a yellow card in the first half. Nevertheless added energy to the team and put in some nice passes.

Substitutes

Ben Watson: – not at his best and almost gave away a goal with a sloppy back pass. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the Rosler style of play.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: – desperately short of goals, with just one to his tally all season. When he has got in shots on goal the goalkeeper has made great saves, as did Handanovic in this match. Could play a role out on the flanks in the new system.

Emmerson Boyce: – came on after 73 minutes, with Perch moving to midfield.

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Wigan Athletic 3 Maribor 1 – champagne then flat beer

wigan

Ben Watson is congratulated after Latics’ second goal

Wigan Athletic put in a Jekyll and Hyde performance in beating Maribor.  At times we were reminded of that brand of champagne football that Roberto Martinez’s teams could sometimes conjure up.  But then again we saw that lethargic side of this current team’s make-up. Champagne it wasn’t – flat beer maybe.

Both teams had gone into the game knowing that Rubin Kazan had thrashed Zulte Waregem 4-0. The most important thing for Wigan was to get the three points, although Owen Coyle had been suggesting they might go further and produce a footballing feast. At times they did.

Unlike the first match in Belgium, Coyle put out his first choice players. Emmerson Boyce came in, pushing Ryan Shotton to centre back. Jean Beausejour replaced James McClean who was not fully fit, but made the bench.

Coyle’s starting line-up and formation was spot-on. James McArthur and Ben Watson played the midfield holding roles, with Jordi Gomez in his best position in the attacking midfield role. Callum McManaman and Jean Beausejour played wide, with Nick Powell in the lone centre forward role.

Latics dominated the first half playing calm, controlled possession football reminiscent of times gone by. Nick Powell ran through the Maribor defence in the 7th minute following a poor back pass, but goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic made a good save.

Wigan took the lead after 22 minutes when an almost comic punch by Handanovic went backwards, allowing Powell an easy chance to head home. McArthur and Watson were controlling the game from central midfield, with Gomez and Beausejour linking up very well. Although well marked, Callum McManaman was a danger on the other wing,

Wigan’s second goal in the 34th  minute came from a fantastic curving cross from Beausejour, headed in by Ben Watson, who had made a great run from midfield.

Powell squandered a chance in the 36th minute when clean through, putting in an audacious chip that went wide. Roberto Martinez was sat there in the stands and would surely have loved that kind of arrogance that Powell had shown, even if the effort was unsuccessful.

In the 38th minute McManaman made a surging run with a good cross for Beausejour who could not control the bobbling ball and scuffed his shot. The same player went through again in the 44th minute and was unlucky with a cross shot that went wide of the far post.

After going in with a 2-0 lead at half time, with Maribor on the ropes, Latics could have won by a landslide. However, once again  they defended deeper and allowed the away team more possession. After 61 minutes the dangerous Jean-Philippe Mendy outpaced and outmuscled Shotton and Magno Tavares scored from the chaos that followed the Frenchman’s cut back.

The whole feel of the game had changed. Latics were edgy, although they were still creating chances at the other end. In the 61st minute a pass from McArthur found Beausejour whose superb low cross just needed a touch with an open goal ahead. Powell stretched but could only manage to hit the post with the ball being cleared.

In the 89th minute it took a spectacular save by Scott Carson to deny a powerful drive from Tavares as he pushed the powerful effort over the bar. Latics were living dangerously.

However, in the 91st minute, Powell who had been a real handful for the Slovenian team all night, got a deserved second goal dribbling through the defence before slotting home with his left foot.

The Good

The well balanced team that Coyle put out provided Latics with the width that they used to stretch Maribor’s defence. They started with six of last year’s squad in the lineup and the understanding between those players was the key to Wigan’s dominance of the match.

Wingers McManaman and Beausejour constantly threatened, until the former was taken off after 67 minutes. In the first half we saw calm, patient build ups with the ball passing through a very capable midfield trio. Even goalkeeper Carson played his part, making short passes, rather than hoofing the ball upfield as has been his wont on previous occasions.

With better finishing Latics could have won the match by at least five clear goals. Powell was guilty of wasting several chances, but his effort and technique cannot be faulted. He is already starting to look like a top quality centre forward, although it is not his natural position. There is no question that he is a future England player.

The Bad

Once more Latics took their feet off the gas in the second half, allowing the visitors back into the game. It has happened so many times this season. Some say that the root of the problem is a lack of fitness.

However, it is nothing new and happened under Martinez too. Apart from the epic cup run, Latics have not had a winning mentality. Constantly struggling against the elite clubs of the Premier League is not good for a team’s psyche. It is going to take some time for Latics to get back that winning mentality and not pay overdue respect to the opposition.

Maribor’s goal should have been avoided. Tavares was the only opposition player within yards of Mendy’s cutback, but nobody marked him.

Player Ratings

Scott Carson: 8 – not overworked but inspired confidence when he made interventions. His superb save in the closing moments kept Latics ahead.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 – solid in defence and linked up well with McManaman.

Ryan Shotton: 6 – exposed for the Maribor goal and not at his best.

Leon Barnett: 6 –  needs to build up more of an understanding with Shotton to be at his best.

James Perch: 6 – solid, but limited in attack.

Ben Watson: 8 – getting back to his best. Hardworking and cultured in his passing. It was good to see him getting into the penalty box for his well taken goal. Substituted after 77 minutes.

James McArthur: 9 – covered every blade of grass on the pitch, a midfield dynamo. It has not been an easy season for the Scot, adjusting to the Championship, but he is back to his best.

Jordi Gomez: 7 – much more effective in his natural role as the midfield playmaker. However, he will need to fight to keep that position with Shaun Maloney and Nick Powell also in the frame.

Callum McManaman: 7 – gradually getting back to form. Looked dangerous at times, although well policed by the Maribor defence. Substituted after 67 minutes.

Nick Powell: 8 – dangerous throughout. Spurned some chances but was a real headache for Maribor’s defence.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – a cultured attacking display from the Chilean. Set up great opportunities with his sublime crossing. Made an outstanding defensive intervention in his own penalty near the end with his defence all at sea.

Substitutes

James McClean: – poor. His lack of close control let him down on too many occasions.

Chris McCann: – came on for Watson after 77 minutes. A cultured midfield player who has received few opportunities so far.

Nouha Dicko: – brought on in stoppage time at the end of the match.

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A good time to play Maribor

The DW Stadium will host an historic event on Thursday, with FK Maribor the visitors. Latics will be hosting  their first-ever Europa League match.  Wigan will come into the game in confident mood, following a resolute 0-0 draw against Zulte Waregem in Belgium. What are the chances of a Latics win?

The timing of the match looks good for Wigan, despite the continued absence of key players through injury. Since I wrote my initial posting about FK Maribor in early September they have been on a downward spiral, winning only one match since.

Maribor’s Croatian coach Ante Čačić has resigned by mutual consent following a bad run of results by the team that normally dominates the Slovenian League. Čačić had only joined Maribor in June, following his success in winning the double with Dynamo Zagreb in the Croatian League. He resigned following a home defeat to FC Koper on Saturday.

Under his management Maribor had started the season in style, winning their first six matches. Since then they have only won one of their last five league matches and crashed 5-2 at home to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League. However, they remain at the top of the league table, on goal difference ahead of Zavrč .

The scoreline in the defeat by the Russian team has clearly caused shock waves in Maribor. Although Maribor had cut Rubin’s lead to 3-2 after being two goals behind, they had been stretched by Rubin’s forwards, the Venezuelan Salomon Rendon in particular. Rubin were to add gloss to the scoreline by getting two counter-attacking goals in time added on, including one from Rendon.

Since the loss to the Russian team Maribor have lost two matches away and drawn one at home. They are also without a win in their last five European outings. They knocked APOEL of Nicosia out of the Champions League on goal difference after two draws, then went on to lose home and away to Viktoria Plzen.

Moreover Maribor have a poor record against English teams in the Europa League, having drawn one and lost three against them. Jean Beausejour played for Birmingham City in their home and away wins against the Slovenian team in the Europa League a couple of years ago. Maribor were to finish bottom of the group with one point.

Last year Maribor went through the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, beating Zeljeznicar Sarajevo of Bosnia and Dudelange of Luxembourg before losing home and away to Croatian champions, Dinamo Zagreb in the play-off round. They were placed in a difficult group in the Europa League, which was won by Lazio. Maribor finished bottom on four points, with a 3-0 home win against Panathinaikos and a 1-1 home draw with Tottenham.

Maribor are competing in their twentieth season in European competitions. By contrast Latic were the only one of the 48 clubs competing in the opening day  of the Europa League group stage who had never played in European competition before.

It is an exciting time for Wigan Athletic, who will be hoping that Maribor’s recent run of poor form will continue – at least for one more game.

There is going to be a wonderful atmosphere at the DW Stadium on Thursday night and Latics have every chance of chalking up a memorable home win.

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A look at Latics’ Europa League opposition – Part 2: NK Maribor

Wigan Athletic’s second match in the Europa League is scheduled for October 3rd with a visit from NK Maribor of Slovenia.

Maribor currently top the PrvaLiga – the Slovenian League. After winning their first six league matches they were held to a disappointing 1-1 home draw by Gorica on Sunday.

Last season Maribor won the 10 team PrvaLiga by a margin of 8 points.  As Slovenian champions they entered the  second qualifying round of the 2013-14 Champions League, being drawn against Birkikara of Romania. Home and away victories against the Romanian team put them into the third qualifying round where they met APOEL of Nicosia.

Maribor came away from the first leg in Cyprus with a hard fought 1-1 draw courtesy of a header from Brazilian forward Magno Tavares.  Maribor were to qualify for the playoffs through a 0-0 draw in Slovenia, after having to withstand a second half barrage from the Cypriot team. However, with the Champions League group stage beckoning they were to come unstuck against Czech champions, Viktoria Plzen, losing 3-1 away and 1-0 at home.

Jurij_PivkaMaribor is a beautiful town of around 95,000 inhabitants in the Styria region in the north east  of Slovenia. It is around 60 miles from the capital Ljubljana.

Nogometni  Klub Maribor was founded in 1960. The club initially played in the Yugoslav leagues, competing in the top tier from 1967-72. During that time their highest league position was 10th place in the 1969-70 season.

In 1991 Slovenia had broken away from Yugoslavia and they established their own football league. Since then NK Maribor have dominated the PrvaLiga, winning it 11 times and the Slovenian Cup 8 times.

The Ljudskivrt Stadium

The Ljudskivrt Stadium

NK Maribor play at the Ljudskivrt stadium, built in 1952 on the banks of the Drava River. It has a capacity of 12,994. They play in an all purple kit.

Despite being a small club by European standards Maribor have reached the group stage of the Champions League in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. They frequently lose their prized assets to bigger clubs, but nurture talented young players through their youth programme.

Much of Maribor’s more recent success can be attributed to the appointment of national hero, Zlatko Zahovic, as their Director of Football in 2007. The ex-Benfica and Porto attacking midfielder  was the key figure in  Slovenia  qualifying for both the World Cup and the European Championship in the early 2000’s. He played a record 80 games for his country, scoring 35 goals.

Maribor enter the Europa league after already playing six matches in European competition this season. This well-run club continues to punch above its weight and should not be underestimated.

With such a wealth of experience behind them in European competitions they are going to be hard to beat.

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