Dream alive as Wigan edge Hawthorns thriller

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A wounded and embattled Wigan Athletic side somewhat miraculously emerged with three points to keep their dream of a survival and FA Cup double very much alive. Despite fielding a makeshift defence, going behind twice, and suffering yet another injury to an important first team player, Wigan pulled three exquisite finishes out of the hat and then held on to the 3-2 result for dear life.

Results elsewhere saw Aston Villa defeat Norwich, who may well become Wigan’s chief relegation rival with only a three-point lead and games against West Brom and Manchester City to follow. Newcastle’s draw at West Ham keeps them two points ahead with games against QPR and Arsenal. A victory for Wigan against Swansea on Tuesday would really shake up the table, potentially even meaning a draw on the last day of the season against Villa could be enough for both sides to survive.

Back at the Hawthorns, a nervy first half exposed Wigan’s defensive frailties with West Brom’s speedy front trio of Shane Long, Romelu Lukaku and Markus Rosenborg causing all sorts of problems. Employing Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam as orthodox full-backs was always likely to heap pressure on the central pairing of Paul Scharner and Emmerson Boyce, but with Ben Watson making his first appearance since breaking his leg back in 2012, no one was breathing easily. The opening goal stemmed from a loss of possession in midfield by Scharner. Lukaku’s excellent through pass caught the Austrian out of position, and Rosenborg sped past Watson before squaring for Long to score.

Wigan’s response was encouraging. Shaun Maloney won a free-kick on the edge of the box and shot narrowly wide, before being fouled in the build-up to the first equalizer. Referee Lee Probert thankfully played the advantage allowing Beausejour to bend a cross in from the left for Arouna Koné to expertly finish.

The Latics started the second half energetically but were soon pegged back after the unmarked Gareth McAuley buried a towering header from a corner. Minutes passed before Roberto Martinez made an influential double substitution, replacing the defensively poor Stam with Roman Golobart and midfielder Jordi Gomez with James McArthur, whose first touch was a spectacular goal. A lovely bit of skill and another lovely left-footed cross — this time by Maloney — was curled to the far post past West Brom keeper Ben Foster, where McArthur was waiting to finish with a diving header.

With the excellent traveling support now in full voice, Wigan went in search of the three points but were still unable to boss the midfield. Minutes slipped away and West Brom threatened to take the lead a third time before Maloney — the team’s heartbeat — created another moment of magic. Receiving the ball from Roger Espinoza — on for the injured Beausejour at left-back — the Scot left two defenders for dead with a stepover and a shimmy before slipping the ball into the path of Callum McManaman who made no mistake.

An incredibly nervy fifteen minutes ensued, but Wigan held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

Not many teams beat West Brom at The Hawthorns, and you can see why. Wigan had very little in the way of chances but scored three excellent goals. West Brom went close on a number of occasions. This was arguably the trickiest of the three “winnable” fixtures left in Wigan’s season, and they got the job done.

Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s little magician, did it again. The finishes were excellent, but it was the skill he mustered to create the chances when no one else could that won Latics the game.

The Bad:

Beausejour’s injury is another cruel blow after losing the other left-sided defender on the books, Maynor Figueroa, a week earlier. The Honduran Espinoza looks set to play an important role in what remains of the season, unless a central defender is pushed wide.

Wigan cannot keep shipping two goals a game and expect to win. Thankfully, the finishing was of the highest order today. All fingers will be crossed for an Antolin Alcaraz return against Swansea.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Showed safe hands and dealt with crosses with more authority than previous matches. Made two or three very good saves.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Deserves huge credit leading a patchwork defence, made several crucial blocks.

Paul Scharner: 6 — Worked his socks off, covered lots of ground, and you can see what it meant to him. But he did make some mistakes, one of which proved costly.

Ronnie Stam: 5 — Good in attack, bad in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Beautiful cross for the goal. Did better than Stam but struggles in one-on-ones with faster players. Still, will be sorely missed.

Ben Watson: 6 — Assumed the defensive midfielder slash centre-back role that James McCarthy played against Spurs. Did well, given his lengthy absence, but attempted far too many cross-pitch Hollywood passes for a man who hadn’t played a competitive match for five months. Still, some good interceptions and tackling and a welcome return.

James McCarthy: 7 — Worked very hard and did a lot of important tackling but gave the ball away a few times and couldn’t control the midfield as he so often does. Headed off the line in the last minute to save the three points.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Not a major contributor, substituted for James McArthur.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Wigan’s best player. Although limited to a wing role for most of the match, he created two of the goals single-handedly and was involved in the build-up of the other. Relieved the pressure on his defence by drawing fouls in crucial moments.

Callum McManaman: 7 — Very positive. Unlucky with his finishing until he got the winner. Took it very well.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Fantastic finish from a quality centre-forward who really looks at home at Wigan.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Fantastic finish and good midfield shift. Surely he will start the next match?

Roman Golobart: 6 — Very nervy upon introduction. Earned a yellow card with a crude lunge, put his keeper under pressure with an over-hit backpass, but his physical presence and Boyce’s help at right-back somewhat stabilized the defence.

Roger Espinoza: 6 — Looked uncomfortable at left-back but did a job for the team.

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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A point gained or two lost?

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A thrilling encounter at the DW Stadium ended two goals apiece as Tottenham and Wigan put a dent in each other’s contrasting ambitions. Spurs, chasing a Champions League spot after being cruelly denied one last season, started strongly but found themselves 2-1 down for the bulk of the second half. Wigan’s committed and organized defending looked likely to secure three points of gold in the relegation battle until an intelligent Tom Huddlestone free-kick caused panic and Emmerson Boyce — scorer of Wigan’s first goal with an excellent header — scored an unfortunate own goal.

While there was much to applaud from Wigan, the nature of the goals conceded will torment Roberto Martinez. Eighty minutes before Boyce’s heartbreaking own goal, Maynor Figueroa and Joel Robles had conspired to bizarrely gift Spurs the lead. A series of uncertain passes between them resulted in a casual clearance by the young Spanish keeper that bounced powerfully off Bale’s outstretched leg and into the back of the net. That Wigan managed to stop Tottenham’s dangerous attacking game but conceded two goals as sloppy as those is cruel on Martinez, who got his tactics right on the day.

Wigan’s goals on the other hand, were fantastic. A curling Shaun Maloney corner was wonderfully headed home by Boyce to equalize early in the affair, before a truly inspired passing sequence involving five players was finished with a thumping left footed volley by Callum McManaman to give the team the lead.

Despite uncharacteristically struggling for possession throughout the match, Wigan played with desire and commitment and were ultimately unfortunate not to emerge with three points.

The Good:

Despite the absence of key defender Antolin Alcaraz and the injury to Maynor Figueroa, there were signs that Wigan could defend well with a makeshift defence. The midfield tackling was superb with James McCarthy and James McArthur at their very best. Ronnie Stam, on for Figueroa, had a good game and may well keep his place at right-back with Emmerson Boyce covering for the injured trio of Ivan Ramis, Antolin Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa.

Callum McManaman’s goal was superbly taken and he has shown enough in the last ten or so matches to suggest he will be a big contributor of goals in seasons to come. He is fearless and direct, and takes it on when others would pass the ball to someone else. He fades in and out of games and is being eased into Premier League football with about an hour of football per match, but he has become an important player for Martinez.

The Bad:

There was a huge element of fortune in Spurs’ equalizing goal, but the first one was simply unforgivable. You can’t expect to beat a team of such quality when you give them a free 1-0 start.

The injury to Maynor Figueroa is another serious blow in a season that has denied Latics of a fit and healthy backline. How different things might have been if Ramis, Alcaraz and Figueroa had been able to line up together. The question now is whether Gary Caldwell will return to the centre of defence against less speedy opposition at West Brom, or if Boyce will partner Scharner with Stam continuing on the right side of defence.

The League Table

It is a two-horse race between Wigan and Aston Villa. The teams have now played the same number of matches, with the latter two points ahead. All eyes will be on their unpredictable fixture against Sunderland on Monday. As long as they do not win, Wigan’s fortunes remain in their hands.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 5 — Awful mistake early in the match to give away the first goal. Arguably might have done better with the second. In his defence, he made some excellent saves and probably saved a goal when Jermain Defoe was through on goal late in the first half — but looked jittery.

Emmerson Boyce: 7.5 — Unlucky to give away the own goal. He had been excellent before that, scoring a brilliant header and defending responsibly after being drafted into the centre of defence.

Paul Scharner: 8– Very good game against difficult strikers, despite moving across to the unfamiliar left side of centre in a make-shift defence.

Maynor Figueroa: 5 — Was not enjoying his day before injuring himself while making an excellent clearance. His injury is a huge blow and will be missed.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Given the circumstances, and being asked to play at left-back for big chunks of the game against some of the fastest players in the league, he coped admirably. Unfortunately, his professional foul against Kyle Walker led to the free-kick from which Tottenham equalised.

James McCarthy: 8 — Asked to play a deeper role shielding the back four, McCarthy covered every blade of grass today breaking up play and driving forward when able.

James McArthur: 8 — An exhibition in one-on-one defending. He won the ball back in midfield frequently and tracked back when necessary to help out his defence.

Jordi Gomez: 7 — Caught in possession a few times and not his best first half, but played well in the second before making way for Roger Espinoza.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — A typical Maloney performance with neat feet, darting runs and positive movement. Unable to exert strong influence on the game from the wing, however, as the team struggled for possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent defensive contribution, he ran his socks off. In attack, he drifted in and out of the game but scored a cracker and looked dangerous when on the ball.

Arouna Kone: 7 — Threatened but couldn’t deliver this time.

Subs:

Ronnie Stam: 7 — Put in a very good shift despite having been in the fringes for a while now.

Franco Di Santo: One fantastic curled cross for Kone after a strong run down the right side.

Roger Espinoza: Immediately involved, a couple decent tackles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down to the last match again?

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‘Remember that our last game is against Aston Villa at home. It could easily go to the last day of the season.’  These were the words of Roberto Martinez in a recent interview.

Wigan Athletic are not strangers to the concept of surviving on the last day of the season. They have done it twice before.

Goals from Paul Scharner and David Unsworth helped Wigan keep afloat in 2006-2007, when they won their last game at Sheffield United. The win put them level on points with the Blades, but Wigan prevailed by a margin of just one in goal difference. In 2010-2011 it was Hugo Rodallega’s header that gave them a win in their last game at Stoke, although a draw would have sufficed, given the eventual results of other teams at the bottom.

Is it again going to come down to that last match? Or will it be all over before then?

Monday night’s 3-0 defeat for Aston Villa at Old Trafford opens up that possibility. Wigan Athletic – with a  match in hand – have 31 points to Villa’s 34. Reading and QPR remain anchored at the bottom with 24 points. If either club were to win all of its remaining four games – most unlikely, but not impossible –  it could reach 36 points.

The probability is therefore that Reading and QPR will get relegated, together with either Latics or Aston Villa. However, there  remains a possibility  that one of those clubs currently on 37 points – Sunderland, Stoke and Newcastle – could also go down if their last four matches were to produce no yield. Very unlikely, given the squads at their disposal, but stranger things have happened.

Aston Villa’s next game is scheduled for Monday at Sunderland, when they will play knowing the result of Latics’ game with Tottenham on Saturday. If Wigan could manage a positive result against Tottenham it would put a lot of psychological pressure on Villa prior to the Sunderland game. Conversely a defeat on Saturday, followed by a win for Villa,  would open up a 6 point gap, which would be hard to surmount.

Martinez  has talked about the need for Wigan to win three out of their last five matches, not an easy matter when two of those are against teams in the top five. But not impossible.  If Wigan and Villa were to eventually finish level on points it would get down to goal difference. Latics currently hold the advantage at -23, compared with Villa’s -27.

For the moment Wigan are waiting anxiously to get an assessment of the damage done to Antolin Alcaraz’ hamstring, which caused him to limp off at West Ham after only 15 minutes. The return of the big Paraguayan after a long-term groin injury has really helped shore up a leaky defence. A prompt return from Alcaraz could make a big difference to Latics’ chances of survival.

The pressure is on for all the teams in the relegation zone, but especially so for Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa. It is the time of the season where you are looking for a little luck to go your way. Just one lucky goal or one bad refereeing decision could tip the balance.

Given the horrendous injuries Latics have had this season they are due some luck. It’s never too late for a bit of luck to come your way.

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Relegation takes centre stage as United clinch title

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As Manchester United players confirmed the club’s 20th league title with a 3-0 triumph over Aston Villa on Monday night and five games still to play, the race at the other end of the table was thrust into the limelight.

For United followers, who were 3-0 up after a mere half an hour, another goal or two might have been icing on the cake. For Wigan supporters, each of Robin Van Persie’s strikes was celebrated as though Emmerson Boyce had donned a red shirt and scored it himself.

If the result mathematically confirmed the title race, then it also brought clarity to its relegation equivalent. While Champions League places are still up for grabs, the battle of the underdogs has always been a fantastic spectacle at the end of each Premier League season — as of today, surely the biggest question left is “will it be Wigan or will it be Villa?”

The triple whammy of a crushing defeat at West Ham and victories for Sunderland and Stoke in tricky fixtures meant Wigan needed things to go to script today if they were to keep themselves within a win of leapfrogging Villa into safety. While it is possible that Stoke, Newcastle, or Sunderland could be hauled back into the fight, their six point advantage plus superior goal difference means it would take a major collapse. In all likelihood, they each need just one more win.

The fixture list has drawn up a remarkable finale. As things stand, Villa are three points ahead, but Wigan have a game in hand and a four-goal advantage. If theoretically, this gap were to remain the same until the last match of the season, a win for Wigan against Villa at the DW would secure safety for the club. Of course, there are five and four league matches for each club respectively between now and that epic scenario. Here’s a quick look at the run-in:

April 27: Wigan vs. Spurs

April 29: Aston Villa vs. Sunderland

May 4: Norwich vs. Aston Villa, West Brom vs. Wigan

May 7: Wigan vs. Swansea

[May 11: Wigan vs. Man City — Cup Final]

May 12: Aston Villa vs. Chelsea

May 14: Arsenal vs. Wigan

May 19: Wigan vs. Aston Villa

On first glance, survival certainly looks achievable. Villa face a resurgent Sunderland side that has kept clean sheets in its last two matches against tricky opposition. They then travel to Norwich, where few teams win but plenty draw, and face Chelsea at home before the showdown with Latics. While they would have been licking their lips at the prospect of Sunderland at home two weeks ago, that outcome is anyone’s guess now. Likewise Norwich, who will be eager to end their involvement in that bottom pack. Meanwhile, Chelsea are fighting to remain in the top four and the riches of the Champions League, a year after winning it.

Wigan, meanwhile, may struggle with fixture congestion and the injuries it brings. Tottenham arrive at a tough time with their confidence high after a remarkable win against Manchester City and key players returning to fitness such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. But at least Roberto Martinez’s charges will have enjoyed a full week of rest by the time they play, after three games last week. Then come the two key fixtures, fast and furious ahead of the FA Cup final. West Brom away is by no means an easy fixture, but with Steve Clarke’s side safe in mid-table it presents an opportunity. Same with Swansea, at home. The trip to Arsenal is unlikely to yield points, particularly if the Champions League qualification battle remains tight.

Neither club is in an enviable position, but in a league whose victor has been known for some time, the contest between Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa at the other end is as tight as they come.