Expecting the unexpected

Wigan - down, but not out.

Wigan Athletic – down, but don’t count them out.

Aston Villa’s amazing 6-1 scoreline against Sunderland last night was certainly unexpected. One single result has lifted the midland club level on points with both Newcastle and Sunderland, only one point behind Norwich who they play on Saturday. Moreover their previously poor record for goal difference has been transformed by the +5 they got last night.

Villa’s win will send shock waves among Wigan Athletic supporters, who were hoping their team could overtake the midlanders. However, Latics are now 5 points behind the pack that Villa have now joined. Things are looking pretty grim.

Around the 85 minute mark of the Tottenham game on Saturday,  I was beginning to believe in my heart that Latics were going to come away with the three  points. Wigan’s second half display was quite superb. A wonderful goal from Callum McManaman had put Latics ahead. Roberto Martinez’ tactics were spot-on and Tottenham just didn’t look like scoring.

However, my head told me something different and I had to brace myself for what was to follow. Could Wigan keep up this vast effort  in those tired closing minutes? Stifling a Tottenham team brimming with talent is a not easy and takes its mental and physical toll.

Latics supporters have come to expect the unexpected from their team and Tottenham’s lucky late goal was probably not a surprise to many of them. So many times this season Latics have not had luck on their side and they have come away short-changed.

Despite much focus being on Aston Villa as relegation rivals, Roberto Martinez has constantly said that other teams will get dragged down into the fray. Let’s hope he is right. At the moment Wigan just do not have enough points, but with good results in the next two matches against West Bromwich and Swansea they can narrow the gap.

Maynor Figueroa’s injury in the Tottenham game will put him out for the rest of the season. A bitter pill for Latics to swallow, given that they were already without key central defenders, Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis.

Martinez resisted the urge to put in Gary Caldwell, when the Honduran went off injured. His decision to put in the faster Ronnie Stam proved to be tactically justified, as Tottenham’s speedy forwards were repelled. However, Caldwell will surely return for the upcoming matches, when a back three is likely to be used.

Things are looking bleak. But with Wigan Athletic, one can continue to expect the unexpected. Wigan may be down, but don’t count them out at this stage.

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Closing the chapter on the McPocalypse

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After the news that Michael Owen finally called time on a career that had long petered out as a result of injury, what better way to close the chapter on an unpleasant week for Wigan Athletic than to receive the good news that Newcastle player Massadio Haidara has not suffered serious injury after the much-discussed Callum McManaman challenge last weekend. Bone bruising and soft tissue damage was the extent of the injury, which just goes to show you that dodgy hamstrings can damage a career plenty more than a bad tackle, while the most innocuous of scuffles can end in a broken leg — as Ben Watson discovered earlier this season.

As with many associated with Wigan in the past week, I’ve been given a bit of stick for what some perceived to be a failure to address the seriousness of McManaman’s tackle. To be clear, I neither believe the tackle was clean as a whistle, nor do I believe it was done with any intent to injure. It was an avoidable accident — a mistake — a crude tackle from an inexperienced attacking player. In a quiet news week, media coverage was bloated and sensationalistic, with the words “career threatening” fanning the flames well before any diagnosis had been made on the severity of the injury.

Of course, we now know — almost a full week later — that the player’s injuries are essentially bruises. Results of x-rays and MRI scans, needed to rule out broken bones or ligament damage respectively, do not take more than a few hours each. If Newcastle knew there was no serious injury early in the week, they chose to keep it to themselves to strengthen their case for McManaman’s punishment or compensation.

Having scored a brilliant goal in the FA Cup tie against Everton and set up the opening goal on his first Premier League start, McManaman was making his long-awaited breakthrough.In retrospect, I suspect a majority of Wigan supporters would have chosen a ban or suspension over the vilification he has received that now threatens to stunt his progress. If Wigan’s reputation has been tarnished by this, so too has Newcastle’s after some of their supporters unleashed a truly obscene barrage of tweets toward our young player which even culminated in the arrest of one fan for making death threats.  No one has benefited.

As a reflection of society, football has always been and will always be charged with emotion, bias, and hypocrisy. The hope is that we can all shift our focus back to the fact that Wigan and Newcastle have a tendency to produce some fantastic football matches, neither side is out to get the other, and no lasting damage has been done. Lets hope Massadio Haidara’s bruises heal quickly and he enjoys a successful career in England, while young McManaman learns to channel his energy in a more controlled manner and continues his exciting progress free of any bullying or threats.

Wigan Athletic 2 Newcastle United 1: Great escape still on, just

KoneWigan emerged with three vital points by the hair on their chinny chin chins as Arouna Kone netted a somewhat fortunate last gasp winner to make the score 2-1. A Davide Santon equaliser on 70 minutes had swung the game Newcastle’s way after Wigan had largely looked in control, and both managers had signaled their intent with attacking substitutions. Jean Beausejour had scored his first goal for the club since arriving just over a year ago after excellent work from Callum McManaman early in the affair.

The win means three of the bottom five won this weekend, narrowing the gap between them and the middle of the table. Roberto Martinez has frequently spoken of a team higher up in the league becoming embroiled in the relegation battle, and so it seems with Sunderland, Norwich, West Ham — and Newcastle themselves — once again failing to win.

The good feeling had returned to the DW before kick-off thanks to the stunning 3-0 win at Goodison Park a week earlier, and the buzz created by the crowd translated into endeavor on the pitch in a strong and committed first half. Martinez was rewarded after surprising many by keeping his cup XI intact, as the lively McManaman repeatedly beat his man down the right flank and crossed only for the ball to bounce Beausejour’s way to put Wigan up. It was the young winger’s first league start, and despite being involved in a dangerous tackle later in the half, his performance should see him cement his place in the starting line-up come next weekend.

There were worrying signs after Newcastle leveled against the run of play, but lady luck smiled on the Latics as a corner bobbled wildly before bouncing off Kone’s outstretched leg to dramatically settle the contest.

The Good: 

An absolutely crucial and decisive result that breathes fresh hope into Wigan’s annual push for survival, and sends a message to the teams around them. With a second consecutive home tie against beatable opposition, there is a real opportunity to build momentum and make up some ground in the table. It is now four wins in five matches in all competitions and two in three in league play.

Martinez’s gamble paid off. Despite a couple wobbly moments, Joel Robles held his own between the sticks, while Jordi Gomez and McManaman performed well in midfield, and Antolin Alcaraz was once again excellent in defense. These were the four changes made to the side for the success at Everton and they may well have cemented their places in the team for the next few fixtures.

Wigan managed to do what they had thus far failed to do — grind out a result.

The Bad:

The way heads dropped after Santon’s equaliser was a concern. Before James McCarthy’s speculative cross led to the corner that ultimately won them the game, Wigan had not looked like scoring during the period of the match with a 1-1 score line.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 6 — Looked confident, showed comfort on the ball, but flapped at a couple crosses. Considering the intensity of the occasion, however, this was a strong league debut for the young keeper. It is looking increasingly likely he will be signed permanently in the summer if terms can be agreed upon.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Disciplined defensively and occasionally burst forward, though often without support.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Marshaled his defence with the composure, strength and speed that has so sorely been lacking this season.

Paul Scharner: 8 — Some excellent tackles, particularly in the first half. A couple panicky moments in the second but overall defended very well.

Maynor Figueroa: 7.5 — Probably should have blocked Santon’s goal-bound shot, but was otherwise excellent. Strong in his aerial defensive play and played some stunning cross field passes.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Tireless. Covered a lot of ground, threatened to burst through on a couple occasions.

Jordi Gomez: 7 — Good first half with some good interceptions and slide tackling. Faded in the second.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Also strong in the first half from his more advanced wing position. It was a pleasure to see him score — the goal was reward for a player who started the season poorly but has quietly regained his form.

Callum McManaman: 8 — He fades out of the match for periods of time, but every time he was on the ball he made things happen. His pace and dribbling added a new dimension to Wigan’s attack, and his quick feet and cross created the first goal.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Full of invention as always, unlucky not to score with a trademark curling effort in the first half and created several opportunities of danger that his teammates were unable to capitalise on.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Worked hard up front as lone striker and got his reward as he prodded home from the right place at the right time. Heavy touch on occasion, but his goal haul for the season has already been an improvement on any other striker in the Martinez era.

Subs: 

James McArthur: 8 — Came on as a defensive replacement for Callum McManaman and played very well, disrupting play and driving forward.

Franco Di Santo: On for the last ten minutes but couldn’t really get going. His presence unsettled the Newcastle defence in the build-up to the winner.

Wigan Athletic vs. Newcastle United: Positivity pervades

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A refreshing wind of optimism swirls around the DW Stadium ahead of Sunday’s crunch match against Newcastle. As painful as the Liverpool setback was a fortnight ago, Roberto Martinez’s team is enjoying a fine run of form that has seen Huddersfield, Reading and Everton dispatched by three-goal spreads, with two clean sheets obtained in the process.

The results are almost as concerning as they are remarkable, however, given the successes were achieved away while the 4-0 fracas was suffered at home. Much like the bulk of last season, Wigan just cannot seem to get going on their home patch. Of course, last time around it did finally click, and in some style, with the 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle a highlight. With Norwich next in line to visit, these two home fixtures are crucial.

In any case, the injection of positivity has not jut come from reaching the FA Cup semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history, but the manner in which it was achieved. I cannot remember a team so dominant at Goodison Park in the past decade — and this is certainly the strongest Everton team in that time. That Latics achieved it with a mixed lineup and attacking formation was all the more remarkable. It also makes the guess-work quite tricky for a potential lineup against Newcastle this weekend.

One unfortunate loss is that of Callum McManaman — a driving force in Wigan’s cup run — to an ankle injury. While he has not been starting in the league, he would have made a solid case to do so this weekend — particularly if Martinez continues with his more traditional back four and wingers, as opposed to his previously preferred wingback system. The switch has resulted in improved attacking play and offered much-needed unpredictability against opponents who had figured out that they key to stopping Wigan was to stop their wing-backs. It has also surprisingly improved the defensive record with two clean sheets out of four, although this may have more to do with the fitness levels of the personnel available now versus earlier in the season. Given the performances of Antolin Alcaraz and Paul Scharner against Everton, it is hard to foresee a return for captain Gary Caldwell this weekend.

If Martinez were to preserve the Everton back four, the only difference to the defence would be the return of Ali Al-Habsi. Up front, Franco Di Santo will probably join Arouna Kone, with Shaun Maloney taking McManaman’s place on the right wing. It’s anyone’s guess whether Jordi Gomez, excellent against Everton in a central midfield role, will retain his place or lose out to James McArthur.

Meanwhile, Newcastle are “fresh” from a 1-0 victory over Guus Hiddink and Samuel Eto’o’s Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. The hope, of course, is that they will not be so fresh. Stand-in captain and Yohan Cabaye limped off in the first half of match on Thursday and will surely be a doubt. Hatem Ben Arfa has also been out with a hamstring injury. Both are quality players and important for the cause, but Newcastle nonetheless have the look of a refreshed side, reinvigorated by January signings and recent improvement.

Crucial to Wigan’s chances is striking the first blow. The team has a dangerous tendency to implode upon conceding, but has looked increasingly deadly on the break and likely to increase a lead when striking first. A patient first half approach would be wise, with a second half push if things remain cagey. A win would do wonders for the Wigan survival cause, but this is likely to be the trickier of the back-to-back home fixtures. Four points from them should be considered a success.

Is there ever a good time to play a good team?

The business of writing match previews is a repetitive one. Who starts, who misses out, what happened last time and what tactical approach might lead us toward a path of destruction and misery. Hardly original stuff.

But while fans may rejoice at the absence of the opposition’s star striker, or brace themselves when their three natural centre halves are set to miss out through injury, one such pre-game quandary causes more tossing and turning than others: is this a good time to play them?

There is no denying that form influences matches. Confident players are willing to take risks, confident teams are more likely to recover from setbacks, match fitness and sharpness are hugely important. So good form is almost always a good thing.

But lets take Newcastle, in terrible form by their standards. A squad of talented internationals that hyper-achieved last season but have struggled with injuries and morale this time around. A squad that thought they had three points in the bag at the rowdy cauldron that is Stoke’s Britannia Stadium before two smash-and-grab strikes in the last ten minutes spoiled the party and sent them home sad once again.

They are like a wounded animal, out for revenge. They may be in poor form, but will be fired up, out to reverse the curse in front of their rabid home supporters. Who, by the way, will be thinking, “Well, we got robbed at Stoke, but that was always a tricky fixture. Wigan at home next: that should get the good times rolling again!”

And so, is this a good time to play Newcastle?

The Optimist: Yes. They’ll be fired up and throw everything at us in the first 20 minutes. But if we can keep them at bay, the crowd will get on their backs, they’ll start to rush things, and errors will creep into their play. They’ll be under pressure to win convincingly and leave space at the back for our speedy strikers to exploit.

The Pessimist: No. They’ve got a squad full of talented players, returning from injury, who feel they were robbed at Stoke. The focus will be on eliminating the defensive lapses that cost them those points at the Brittania. Pappis Cisse scored on his return to the squad. They have 5-6 players with something to prove, and any of them could win the game for them. We’ve had it.

Case closed, clearly.

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