Who will play?

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On such an historic occasion for Wigan Athletic it seemed in a strange way inappropriate to focus on lineups, tactics and the XI that turned out to represent the club in its first ever FA Cup final.

But it is the biggest game in the club’s history, so we decided to write this up as an add-on. If you haven’t already, please do give our preview a read. In the meantime, here is the traditional match preview.

While defending champions Manchester City were busy resting their eight of their starting XI during their 1-0 victory over West Brom — a team Wigan had spectacularly, but only just, beaten three days prior – Wigan suffered yet another season-ending injury. Ronnie Stam had only been on the pitch for a matter of seconds, before apparently breaking his leg.

The list of defenders unavailable to Roberto Martinez is now five strong: Ivan Ramis, Antolin Alcaraz, Maynor Figueroa, Jean Beausejour, Ronnie Stam. If Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, Matija Nastajic, Gael Glichy and Alexander Kolarov were injured and missing, it is arguable that Manchester City would be a bit worried too.

But for a club of Wigan’s resources, the situation is disastrous — thus the defensive errors of the last two matches.

The good news is that the attack has been magnificent. Without creating that many chances, Wigan have managed seven top quality strikes in the past three matches, with scorers in each of the defensive, midfield and attacking lines.

The biggest question ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup final must surely be who will play? Should Roberto field his strongest team, whatever that currently is given the injury crisis? Or should he reserve players for the crucial survival fixtures three and seven days later against Arsenal and Aston Villa?

One player whose presence will please most Latics supporters is Ali Al-Habsi. Given Martinez’s pattern of playing the current league reserve goalkeeper in cup fixtures it looks like the big Omani will return. The twist here is that it will be intriguing to see if Al-Habsi — something of a talisman to Wigan supporters — can perform well enough to keep his place for the final two league fixtures. Joel Robles is a really exciting prospect and talented young keeper, despite for his horrendous mistake against Tottenham.

It will be interesting to see if Martinez continues with Ben Watson in that hybrid role of part holding midfield player, part central defender. Martinez has done much for Latics in the realm of tactical innovation, but  the stats show that in the last three matches, using that new system,  they have let in seven goals. However, given the lack of defenders available to him, Martinez might have to use it again.

Wigan fans will pray that Antolin Alcaraz will return from injury in time for Saturday, although it appears unlikely. Gary Caldwell was vulnerable  against Swansea and is likely to struggle against City’s speedy forwards. Roger Espinoza was used on the left of defence against the Welsh team and looked like a fish out of water. If he is to play on the left he will need the support of a strong central defence.

It therefore appears that Martinez has two choices for his defensive lineup – persevere with his recent tactical plan or revert to a system with a back three and wing backs.

One thing he can be sure of is that, if he plays, Gary Caldwell’s commitment will be second to none. Last year’s player of the season has been fighting against a chronic hip injury, with tremendous courage,  having to take injections to even play. It would be a wonderful tribute to the skipper if he makes the starting lineup. Without him Latics would not have been in the Premier League this season.

The back three will most likely be Roman Golobart, Gary Caldwell and Paul Scharner, with Emmerson Boyce and Roger Espinoza at wing back. Alternatively he could play Caldwell at right wing back, putting the more pacy Boyce in the middle. City do not normally play with a left winger, although Caldwell would have to cope with an overlapping full back,  Clichy or Kolarov.

Maybe Martinez will surprise us with another new tactical innovation. But no matter who is playing where, Wigan will need to keep things tight, keeping possession, not giving away suicidal goals.

Just over three weeks ago Wigan Athletic gave an excellent account of themselves at Eastlands, being pipped by a spectacular late goal from Carlos Tevez. If they can play like that tomorrow and get a little bit of luck, then an upset remains on the cards.

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“There’s only one Bob Martinez.”

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“There’s only one Bob Martinez.”

So sang a  group of Wigan Athletic supporters on Saturday, after their team had gained a massive three points from the trip to the Hawthorns. Once again they were starting to believe that what the charismatic Spaniard had been saying had been right all along.

Who else but Martinez could put a positive spin on a 6-1 win by relegation rivals, Aston Villa? He had been saying for weeks that other teams would get dragged into the relegation mire, although at the time most of us were looking no further than overtaking the Villans.

Martinez was quoted as saying: “We wanted Aston Villa to have a very strong ending to the season. The reason for that is I don’t think it would be healthy for any of the teams go into the final game of the season as a final, a showdown, where one of the teams has to get relegated. I think that would be very dangerous.”

There certainly is only one Roberto Martinez.  He is the man who turned down lucrative offers at much bigger clubs to continue to work miracles on a low budget at Wigan. Martinez  is the most positive and optimistic of football managers. He is the one who maintains his calm in the fiercest of storms.

His critics will say he is a spin doctor of the highest order. His fans will say that his positivity shines through and he is passionate about the club. Together with chairman, Dave Whelan, they are the ultimate “believers”, dedicated to steering their unfashionable club towards permanency in the higher levels of football.

An article in the Daily Mail  on Thursday drew derision from neutrals when it quoted Martinez as saying that Paul Scharner was one of the best centre halves in Europe.

Looking into the article more closely one found that Martinez’ original quote had been qualified with the proviso of “when he is fully focused”. When referring to the Austrian’s likely return to Hamburg at the end of the season, Martinez suggested that Scharner would return a better footballer  “because he’s a very mature player who has a strong desire to help the team keep a clean sheet rather than helping in an attacking sense like he used to.’

It was a clear example of “Martinez-speak” – publicly backing Scharner – but also letting him know that defence is what he is there for. Unfortunately the big Austrian didn’t seem to have been listening. After 29 minutes of the West Bromwich game he lost the ball when out of position in the opponents’ half, the subsequent breakaway leading to a goal for the home team.

Roberto Martinez thinks Scharner’s best position is at centre half and most Wigan fans would agree with him. But then again – will the eccentric Scharner ever learn from his mistakes?

Despite the wonderful result at West Bromwich there is still a mountain to climb if Wigan are to avoid relegation. The Swansea game coming up on Tuesday is huge and only four days before the FA Cup final.

Jean Beausejour’s injury is another bitter pill for Latics to swallow. Can Martinez continue to fire-up his players, given the demanding schedule that is coming up and  injuries continuing to weaken his squad?

One thing is for certain – Roberto Martinez will continue to believe.

Being a Wigan Athletic supporter can be a stressful experience and sometimes we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. The win at West Bromwich has helped us to see that light.

The dream of Premier League survival and winning the FA Cup remains alive. Like Martinez, Latics supporters can continue to believe.

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Wigan Athletic v Tottenham Preview – Can Caldwell do it?

Tomorrow Wigan Athletic face a  resurgent Tottenham side currently in fifth position, desperate to reach the top four and thereby gain a place in the lucrative Champions League. Very difficult opposition for a team like Wigan, in the relegation zone.

The nerves will be jangling for both Latics and Spurs, with so much at stake for the two clubs, at opposite ends of the table. The odds favour Tottenham, who have caused Wigan so much damage in  previous years. No Latics supporter will forget the horrible 9-1 drubbing at White Hart Lane three seasons ago. However, they will also point to stoic performances, which produced 1-0 wins at that compact London stadium in November of this season and in August two years earlier. Wigan have surprised the Spurs before and can do it again.

The loss of Antolin Alcaraz – for what looks like three weeks – is a body blow for Wigan. The question is whether Gary Caldwell can step up to the plate and make a seamless transition. This time last year Caldwell’s form was a revelation and it led to a player, who had many fierce critics among the fans, being voted ‘Player of the Year’.  Can he do it again this year?

Alcaraz had been building up a defensive partnership with Paul Scharner. With the two together the aerial threat of the opposition had diminished and the defence had conceded a lower proportion of goals than over previous months.

Caldwell will have to forge an understanding with Scharner, not an easy matter, given the Austrian’s maverick tendencies. The interaction of those two strong personalities will prove pivotal in Latics’ attempts to avoid that trap door of relegation.

Despite his frustrating ways, Scharner has already proved to be an excellent January loan signing. Wigan fans cannot help but warm to his effort, his  excellent interceptions and his technique in the tackle. We are told that Paul Jewell never really trusted him as a central defender, but Scharner has always had the skills to excel in the position. However, years after Jewell’s reign, doubts still remain of the Austrian’s ability to be a reliable team player.

Providing Caldwell and Scharner can forge a strong partnership Latics will approach their remaining games with a strong defensive backbone. It is going to be particularly crucial tomorrow. Dealing with Bale and co is never easy, but Wigan have done it successfully before and can do it again.

Gary Caldwell has had a difficult season, having been dogged by niggling injuries. Fans have rarely seen him at his best. This is the time for him to show what he can do. He has shown himself capable in the past and much will depend on his performances.

Roberto Martinez will certainly consider the opposition when he decides on his lineup. Given that Tottenham are likely to start with a lone striker – Jermain Defoe or Emmanuel Adebayor – he may well revert to a conventional back four. This would push Jean Beausejour into a left wing position. Up front he can choose between Franco Di Santo and Callum McManaman, to join Arouna Kone. Jordi Gomez will most likely continue to operate as a midfield anchor, although Martinez might think of putting in James McArthur to neutralize the threat of the Tottenham midfield.He might also consider packing the midfield by including the two of them with James McCarthy.

A tough game for Wigan, with the odds stacked against them. However, Wigan Athletic have proved their resilence, time after time. Providing there is strength in the centre of defence, an upset is by no means impossible. Believe Latics!

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QPR v Wigan Athletic Preview – Keep Grinding, Latics!

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Joel Robles – the young Spanish goalkeeper is key to Wigan’s hopes tomorrow at Loftus Road.

Around this time last year the great revival started. Wigan Athletic were to not only beat the elite, but to beat them on merit, through champagne football, winning 7 of the last 9 games. Before the revival started we saw an awful performance from Latics at Loftus Road in January, with Queens Park Rangers winning 3-1. Somehow QPR managed to stay up, but by the skin of their teeth. Given the upturn in recent results for Wigan Athletic can we expect a better result in tomorrow’s key encounter at Loftus Road? Some champagne football, even?

Wigan Athletic come into this game after gaining 6 priceless points from home games against Newcastle and Norwich, following a momentous 3-0 win at Everton in the FA Cup. Only one goal has been conceded in these last three matches and late goals have sealed the league wins. Last week Norwich did not force Joel Robles to make a single save, such was the quality of the Wigan defence. In those home games champagne football was a scarce commodity, but the results have been just what the doctor ordered. Latics ground both Newcastle and Norwich down, restricting them, then delivering the hammer blow.

“Must win” is a term that is banded about too freely. Wigan supporters have seen their team lose “must win” games, but nevertheless survive. If this game is a must win for one of the teams tomorrow , then it must be more so for QPR. They lie 8 points adrift with only 7 games left. Even a draw would put them under great pressure in the matches that remains. A draw would not be ideal for Wigan, but it would help keep them afloat. Put simply, this is a more crucial game for QPR than for Latics.

Roberto Martinez deserves credit for sticking his neck out and rewarding the players who helped the club reach the FA Cup semi final. Ali Al Habsi and Gary Caldwell were pivotal in last year’s revival, but they are now on the bench. How times can change. The upturn in results coincides, not for the first time, with the return from injury of Antolin Alcaraz. His recent performances have been a revelation and one wonders what league position Wigan would be in now, if he had been available all season. His central defensive partnership with Paul Scharner has been the centrepiece of recent performances.

Joel Robles is clearly a very capable young goalkeeper, tall and dominant. It was never going to be easy to step into the shoes of fans’ favourite, Ali Al Habsi, but he has handled it well so far. The Omani has not been in the same form this season that he showed previously. However, he is such a capable goalkeeper that his time will come again. For the moment Robles is first choice. The defence has managed to shield Robles up to this point, but tomorrow could well prove to be the acid test for him. His performance could well be the main factor that helps decide the result.

Harry Redknapp refuses to accept that QPR will go down. Looking at the real quality players they have in their squad they should be able to stay up. However, like Wigan they have a penchant for throwing away good results through appalling defensive errors. Tomorrow’s result might well depend on which defence gives it away, rather than which team plays better.

Wigan will probably field an unchanged lineup, although there is a possibility that James McArthur will replace Jordi Gomez in the holding midfield role. Although he made the pass for Arouna Kone’s goal against Norwich, Gomez did not have a good game.

With the FA Cup semi final coming up next weekend, this game comes at a difficult time for Latics. Wembley is sure to be in their players’ heads, although Martinez will surely emphasise the need for a good result tomorrow.

QPR have a wealth of good players to choose from. At their best they could thump Wigan. However, they are in deep trouble and they are playing a team that has a good record against relegation rivals. It is one of those matches that is very hard to predict: it could be a stalemate or even a spectacular result for either team. As far as Wigan are concerned, grinding out another result though strong defence, is probably the way to go. Keep grinding, Latics!

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The Canals of Alcaraz

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In May of 2010 Wigan Athletic supporters were to hear that their club had made a ‘Bosman signing’ of a Paraguayan centre half from a club in Belgium. A month later, on June 10, Antolín Alcaraz was to make himself known on the world stage when he scored a headed goal against Italy in Cape Town. The 1-1 draw helped steer Paraguay into the World Cup quarter finals. But who was Alcaraz and how did he get into his national team despite never playing at senior level in his own country?

Aveiro is a prosperous coastal town in central Portugal. It is often called the  ‘Venice of Portugal’ because of its canals and boats. It aveiro3is home to SC Beira Mar whose crowds rarely reach five fugures. One of their claims to fame is that the great Eusebio played for them for a brief time in 1976. When the 21 year old Antolín Alcaraz joined them in January 2003 they were in the first division, although the club has oscillated between the first and second divisions since then. Alcaraz was to spend four years in Aveiro, cutting his teeth as a professional footballer, becoming Beira Mar’s defensive lynchpin and captain. He was to pick up the first of his 22 caps for Paraguay in his final season at the club.

Antolín Alcaraz comes from a humble background. He was raised in the south of Paraguay in San Roque González, a town of around 12,000 people, some 100 km from the capital Asuncion. After joining Racing Club of Argentina as a teenager he was snapped up by Fiorentina, but at a bad time since the ‘Viola’ were to be relegated to Italian lower leagues because of financial problems. He left, and after a trial with Palermo, headed for Aveiro.

Alcaraz was to leave Aveiro in July 2007 to move to another place famous for its canals, Bruges. Club Brugge were a more well known club than Beira Mar, having reached two European finals and won the Belgian league 13 times. During Alcaraz’ time in that beautiful city the club finished in the top three each year. In the 2008-09 season Alcaraz made six appearances for Club BrugesBrugge in the UEFA Cup, when they were knocked out in the group- phase, although overall they had only lost one match in the competition. He made seven appearances in 2009-10 in the newly formed Europa League. Brugge qualified through the group stage but were to be undone in extra time at Valencia.

Alcaraz has been a regular member of Paraguay’s side since the World Cup, his team reaching the final of the Copa America in 2011, beating Brazil on penalties in the quarter final.

Strangely enough the Leeds-Liverpool canal runs right next to the DW Stadium. It might lack the beauty of those in Aveiro and Bruges, but certainly played its part in the Industrial Revolution and today offers pleasant walks along its paths. Not that Antolin Alcaraz will be too concerned about that. He will be focusing on two things: helping Wigan Athletic avoid relegation and finding himself a new contract for vnext season at 30 years of age.

One has often felt that the best has been yet to come with Alcaraz. He has had his ups and downs with the club, including a controversial red card in December of 2011 for spitting at a Wolves player. He made 34 appearances in his first season, but only 25 in his second due to injury. However, his return to the team in April last year was crucial in providing a solid defensive backbone alongside Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa . A defence that had been leaking like a sieve was to concede only 10 goals in the final 11 league games.

This has been a frustrating season for Antolín Alcaraz, with 6 months out through injury. However, once again his return to the team has stabilised the defence. His partnership with Paul Scharner promises to be something special. For once Wigan have height and pace in the centre of their defence. The way the two players have gelled in the Everton and Newcastle matches has been quite remarkable, given that Scharner had left Wigan when Alcaraz arrived in 2010.

There is no certainty that either Antolín Alcaraz or Paul Scharner will be at Wigan next season. At the moment they are both playing the best football of their Latics careers. If they can continue to do so until the end of the season it could mean Wigan achieving the double goal of Premier League survival and playing in the Europa League.

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