Fulham v Wigan Athletic: Moment of truth for Boselli?

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Tomorrow Wigan Athletic face Martin Jol’s Fulham side at Craven Cottage. The tight stadium, adjoining the Thames, has proved a difficult venue for Latics in the past, with the only win coming in 2006-2007, a goal from Henri Camara proving sufficient for a 1-0 scoreline. Last year, in the middle of Latics’ storming late run, they looked a little stale at Craven Cottage, but went ahead through a cracking shot by Emmerson Boyce. The Cottagers were to fight back and a soft goal in the last five minutes from Philippe Senderos won them the match.

Fulham have since lost key players in Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, who went to Tottenham for big money. Their midfield general and talisman, Danny Murphy, was released at 35 years of age. Blackburn’s gain was Fulham’s loss. In Murphy’s absence they have readjusted their tactical system, bringing in a handful of new signings, some more well known than others. Their high profile signing was Dmitar Berbatov, now 31 years old, who has a formidable record against Wigan with 8 goals in 11 appearances against them. Since their arrival in the Premier League he has tormented Latics as much as any other player. One recalls his precise cross leading to Hugo Rodallega’s headed goal at the DW Stadium in September. That day Rodallega himself did not celebrate his goal in front of his previous fans. However, he is going to be enthusiastic to play against his former club and do further damage tomorrow.

The absence of Arouna Kone on African Nations Cup duty is a major blow for Wigan. The big question is who will replace him. The moment of truth must surely come soon for Mauro Boselli. Limited to a single league start after showing excellent form — and several goals — in the first two league cup ties, his time is surely now. His success relies heavily on the ability of the wingbacks to provide him with the right ammunition. Eighteen-year-old Angelo Henriquez, bright off the bench against Bournemouth, should not be expected to lead the line and like any other young player from a different continent, will take some time to adapt. Another option is Callum McManaman as a second striker, and there is always the possibility of an extra midfielder in the shape of David Jones or Jordi Gomez, a more conservative approach.

Fulham’s success over the past few years has been largely based on their home form, which has been outstanding. However, this season has seen a few cracks develop in the Craven Cottage fortress. They have already lost four Premier League matches at home, including their last to Swansea, after only drawing previously with Southampton. If there is a time for Latics to get a good result at Fulham then surely it must be tomorrow.

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Wigan Athletic & Honduras: A love story

It was a chilly evening in Bloemfontein. The 2010 World Cup was in full swing, and while the rest of the world adjusted their TV sets for the decisive Group H match — Spain vs. Chile — my party set off for Free State Stadium amid a sea of blue and white stripes.

My wife Kat and I, fresh from a 12 hour drive from Port Elizabeth where we’d taken in England’s 1-0 win over Slovenia a couple days prior — wore Wigan Athletic shirts. My brother-in-law John, also dressed in Wigan from head to toe, had followed Honduras’ progress through the qualifiers and ensured we had tickets for the group match against Switzerland. Everyone else wore Honduras colours, but by the time we arrived at the stadium, the distinction was blurred.

On paper, the match was a drab 0-0 that dumped Switzerland out of the tournament (Honduras had already been knocked out after defeats against Spain and Chile). But for Hondurans, this was an historic night. Second World Cup, their first since 1982. And it might have been a first win but for some good goalkeeping from the Swiss. The draw was seen as a dignified way to bow out of an extremely tricky group, in their second World Cup appearance. Switzerland had defeated Champions-to-be Spain only a week prior — they were no slouches.

On the pitch, former Latics favourite Wilson Palacios bossed the midfield alongside Hendry Thomas, still a Wigan player at the time. They never got to play together at the JJB or DW, a shame based on the tenacity displayed that evening. Maynor Figueroa, heroic in previous matches despite the defeats, continued his fine form in defense. Current Latics target Roger Espinoza was on the bench. As Figueroa walked toward the tunnel at the end of the match, I shouted in Spanish, “Maynor, por favor quedate en el Wigan!” [Maynor, please stay at Wigan] As the words registered, he retreated back out of the tunnel, stuck his back out head out, and gestured a thumbs up my way. True to his word, he remains a fixture at Wigan Athletic to this day.

I’ve since learned that we were not the only Latics supporters following Honduras at that World Cup. For years now, a curious bond has formed between the Central American nation and the northern town of Wigan.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in Colombia, I know what it means for a Latin American country to see their footballer exports succeed abroad. My dad would pull me out of bed on Sunday mornings to watch Faustino Asprilla play for Parma, and later Newcastle. This was long before the days of Ivan Cordoba’s success at Inter Milan, or the present day golden generation of Colombians succeeding in Europe led by Radamel Falcao. There were two or three players plying their trade abroad, and their every movement was watched with pride.

In many ways, Wigan Athletic has become dear to Hondurans as Parma did to Colombians back in those days. If Roger Espinoza completes his rumoured move from the MLS upon the expiration of his contract, he will become the fourth Honduran to play for the Latics. It is no coincidence that Honduras qualified to their first World Cup in 2010, as their players found first team football in top level leagues. Wigan continue to give their players a stage, an opportunity to grow — and they are reaping the benefits. Needing a win to progress in CONCACAF qualifying yesterday, they annihilated Canada 8-1 and in turn leapfrogged them and Panama to win their qualifying group in the final fixture. Their excellent showing at the Olympics proved there is more talent coming through, Espinoza included. A second consecutive World Cup is a possibility.

And so, there is a real bond between Honduras and Wigan Athletic. Jet-lag aside, Honduras’ success in the qualifiers can only be good for the Latics. Maynor Figueroa has grown immensely over the years. Honduras was the first to use him as a left centre-half, and it wouldn’t be surprising if watching Honduras had persuaded Roberto Martinez to use him in the same way in Wigan. The experience these players gain in major tournaments ultimately strengthens their performances for the club. If Rodallega had been able to break into the Colombian team, he too, might have further developed. As it was, he fell down the pecking order and stagnated for both club and country.

So keep an eye out for our Honduran brethren in the final six-team CONCACAF group stage. With Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica for company — three automatic berths, and a playoff against Oceania — you may have another reason to travel to Brazil in 2014.

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Wigan Athletic 1 Fulham 2: Finishing lets Latics down

We suspected in our match preview that this would be battle of the strikers, so the sight of Franco Di Santo in a suit on the sidelines was a damning one. Fulham’s expertly taken goals stood in sharp contrast to a handful of clear opportunities Latics squandered before Arouna Koné halved the margin in stoppage time.

In fairness, Roberto’s men were a bit unlucky. Jordi Gomez hit the crossbar with a vicious left-footed strike, Ivan Ramis had a header tipped onto the bar by Mark Schwarzer, who always reserves his best for the DW. Arouna Koné latched onto a quick-thinking through ball from Shaun Maloney but took a heavy touch and lost the chance. Mauro Boselli was presented with a golden opportunity after good work from James McCarthy, but dinked wide. El que no los hace los ve hacer. If you don’t take your chances, you’ll watch them being taken. Just as Latics seemed to be turning the screw, Bryan Ruiz somehow managed to hold on to the ball at the top of the box long enough for Damien Duff to find space, take a touch and effectively seal the three points with a clinical strike. Despite the introductions of Callum McManaman and Ryo Miyaichi, both positive and adventurous, it took Latics just too long to get one back.

Hugo Rodallega has rightly been praised for his muted celebrations, after he finished off a Dimitar Berbatov floater in the first half. The Colombian was energetic throughout, while the Bulgarian oozed class. Latics’ overall performance could be summed up as inconsistent — the passing at times sloppy and unambitious, at others incisive and sharp. Ben Watson, handed a rare start to allow McArthur time to heal from his ongoing back problems, exemplified this. His range and quality of passing is excellent. But he also gives the ball away and offers less steel. He created some of the best openings but frustrated at times too.

Speaking of steel, Antolin Alcaraz has been sorely missed. Ivan Ramis shows all signs of being an excellent long-term signing for the club, but the understanding developed between the Alcaraz-Caldwell-Figueroa axis took years to build. The Paraguayan’s absence has coincided with two of the softest defensive performances since January of this year. There has been a lack of intensity in the past couple matches. Roberto has acknowledged as much, and one suspects that the return of the tireless McArthur, Di Santo — and hopefully Alcaraz — will correct that.

All in all, a bit unfortunate. The Lee Probert sandwich was a highlight. But it’s time to get some more points on the board.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7.5 — Back to form after a troubled second half at Old Trafford. Made some good saves.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — A welcome aerial threat on set pieces. Defense was wobbly throughout, though.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — An off-day for the normally reliable captain. Out-jumped by Rodallega for the first goal. Subbed off in the second half.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Quiet in possession and attacking thrust. Duff was unmarked for the second goal.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Wasn’t used much on the right, although he is clearly a target for far-post crosses from the left. Missed one such opportunity in the first half, heading wide.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Got into decent positions and floated a few useful crosses into the box, though some of them felt more hopeful than purposeful.

Ben Watson: 6 — At times incisive and inventive, but also wasteful. Why was he taking a direct free-kick when Maloney and Jordi were standing next to him?

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Had a good game, unlucky not to have played a big part in an equalizing goal after Schwarzer saved his second half effort, only for Boselli to missed the tap in.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — As ever, Latics most inventive player. Played a fantastic through-ball to Koné when it was still 1-0 that would have evened things up.

Jordi Gomez: 6.5 — Unlucky to hit the post with a fabulous effort, he does drift into goalscoring positions, but also sometimes slows down attacks but turns backwards or sideways.

Arouna Koné: 6.5 — Took his goal well, and showed on a couple occasions the tremendous burst of pace he possesses. Looks a good signing. Shame he couldn’t finish his one-on-one.

Subs:

Mauro Boselli: Only had one chance, but missed it unfortunately.

Callum McManaman: Positive, ran at people and played his part in the goal.

Ryo Miyaichi: Saw a lot of the ball in his minutes on the pitch. His final pass needs refining but bags of potential.

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.

WIGAN ATHLETIC 3 WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS 2 – CHAMPAGNE FOOTBALL IN A PARTY ATMOSPHERE

What a pleasant way to end a season – champagne football played by Latics, with an appreciative home crowd lapping it up. How strange that after 8 minutes with the home crowd celebrating an upcoming 8th year in the Premier League, Matt Jarvis should dampen the party atmosphere by scoring a peach of a goal. Receiving a ball from Steven Ward he cut in from the left and put a peach of a shot beyond Ali Al Habsi’s reach.

Latics came back in the 12th minute with an opportunist goal from Franco Di Santo, kicking the ball between the legs of a Wolves defender into the left hand corner, after James McCarthy had dispossessed Stephen Hunt in midfield. The Jimmy Macs and Shaun Maloney were running the midfield and it came as no surprise when Emmerson Boyce scored two minutes later with a towering header from a Jean Beausejour corner. Latics dominated the remainder of the first half with their excellent movement and silky skills, but could not further add to their tally.

Wolves came out with more resolve in the second half and the Wigan defence had to be on its toes. Al Habsi produced an excellent save from Kevin Doyle, but Gary Caldwell was ruling the roost at the back. Wigan continued to produce waves of classy football, with Shaun Maloney orchestrating the play, giving the Wolves defence a torrid time. The lively Albert Crusat came on for Victor Moses after 58 minutes and Hugo Rodallega for Franco Di Santo after 79 minutes. Within the first minute of coming on it was Rodallega who headed the ball for Boyce to hit a screamer of a half volley into the net. Jordi Gomez came on for Shaun Maloney after 82 minutes.  In the 84th minute Boyce went through the Wolves defence with the chance of a hat trick. However, he unselfishly tried to square the ball to Rodallaga and the chance was lost. Steven Fletcher got a consolation goal for Wolves on 86 minutes, after Adrian Lopez – in for the injured Antolin Alcaraz – got caught in possession on the edge of his penalty area. In another sweeping move Rodallaga was unlucky to see his shot hit the post in the final minute of added time. The final whistle signaled a pitch invasion by delighted fans.

The Good

The scoreline did not truly reflect the gulf between the two teams. This was champagne football from Latics, with Shaun Maloney being at the core of practically all of our best attacking moves. The Latics fans have been fantastic over the past few months, in sharp contrast to the doom and gloom that pervaded the earlier part of the season. The belief shown by the fans has galvanised a team previously lacking self confidence.

 It is not only the prospect of an 8th season in the Premier League that makes me look forward to the resumption in August. More than that it is the prospect of Latics playing this brand of football and not being afraid of the rich and bloated clubs who dominate the league. We have to shed the image of “Little Wigan” and move up a notch in our own estimation. If Bob and Dave both stay for a few years longer we will not be perennially looking to avoid relegation, but towards being in the top half of the table, seeking a Europa league place.

The Bad

After being outstanding in recent games Antolin Alcaraz suffered a thigh injury in training. Estimated time of recovery is 6 weeks so let’s hope all will be well for him at the start of next season. He was missed in defence.

Player Ratings


Ali Al Habsi: 8 – Did all he could to keep Wolves out.  A top class ‘keeper.

Emmerson Boyce: 9 – This defensively minded player has become a real attacking option in the right wing back position. Has scored three cracking goals in recent matches.

Adrian Lopez: 6 – Tried hard to impose himself physically, but looked nervy. His lack of match fitness and practice probably contributed to him losing the ball for Wolves’ second goal.

Gary Caldwell: 9 – Superb at the back once again.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 – Excellent yet again.

Jean Beausejour: 8 – Played more of an attacking role than usual. Put in some lovely crosses that might have led to more goals.

James McCarthy: 8 – Excellent yet again.

James McArthur: 8 – Probably our most under rated player. Excellent performance.

Shaun Maloney: 9 – A brilliant performance from the Little Magician.

Victor Moses: 6 – Ineffective, taken off after 58 minutes. Maybe unsettled by transfer talk?

Franco Di Santo: 8 – Must be one of the best in the Premier League in his skilful hold-up play. Scored an opportunist goal.

Substitutes

Albert Crusat: 8 – Made a major impact as a substitute, coming close to scoring on at least three occasions. Promises well for the future.

Hugo Rodallega – Has been a great servant for Wigan Athletic. What shame he was unlucky in the last minute, hitting the post as his Latics career was coming to a close.

Jordi Gomez – Worked hard and put through some nice passes. This has been his best season at the club and he has managed to silence many of his critics.