Towards Europe and Survival

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Roberto Martinez is indeed a brave and unusual man. Who else would turn down lucrative offers to manage Aston Villa or Liverpool to stay with a club that is continually fighting relegation? Who else stays calm and optimistic in the darkest of times when it just does not seem possible for Wigan Athletic to succeed?

The 4-0 home defeat to Liverpool was hard to bear for Wigan Athletic supporters. It was not only the result but the manner in which the team had performed, or one might say, not performed. Then a week later Martinez puts out the most attacking starting lineup we have seen during his tenure, with only one genuine holding midfielder in James McCarthy. The resulting 3-0 victory at ‘Fortress Goodison’ was a revelation. The Everton players must have been shell shocked by not only the result, but in Wigan’s command of the game. A match that will be remembered by Latics fans for years to come.

Sometimes a team struggling in the league does well in a cup competition. So it was to prove on Saturday, when Roberto Martinez took a gamble by putting in most of his first choice players for an FA Cup tie at Goodison Park. Some would say that he risked injury to his senior players at a crucial time and that the FA Cup is an unnecessary diversion in Wigan’s fight against relegation from the Premier League. Better to concentrate on the league and let the second string side deal with Everton. In the event Callum McManaman limped off after 40 minutes and Ryo Miyaichi is now out for the rest for the season, following a tough challenge from Kevin Mirallas.

Whether Martinez was right or wrong to take that risk is a question that would be best answered at the end of the season. The 3-0 win has created a huge amount of interest among Latics followers and has sent shock waves to the other teams embroiled in the relegation battle. Latics face a potential banana skin in the semi final against Championship rivals, but if they can play to their potential then they will not only reach the final, but will probably also qualify for the Europa League.

It is only two years ago since Birmingham City qualified for the Europa League by beating Arsenal in the League Cup final. Three months later they were to lose their final Premier League fixture at Tottenham, condemning them to relegation. They had only won 2 of their final 12 league matches after lifting the cup.

Despite now being in the second tier of English football Birmingham were to perform well in the Europa League, being unlucky to be eliminated in the group stage after winning four, drawing two and losing two matches in the tournament. Their gates averaged 24,431 in the four Europa League games played at St Andrews, compared with 16,451 in the Championship division where they finished in 4th place.

The possibility of Wigan playing in the Europa League is mouth-watering to their loyal fans who have stuck with their club through thick or thin. It would represent the next level of achievement for a club that has come so far since joining the Football League in 1978. At this stage it is only a possibility, depending largely on beating Millwall, but also on whether the other team that reaches the final also qualifies for the Champions League. Given that the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea are the candidates it looks a strong possibility.

In that same 2010-2011 season Bolton Wanderers reached the FA Cup semi final, only to be undone 5-0 by Stoke City. Following that defeat Bolton slid down the table, losing 5 out of their last 6 games.

The experiences of Birmingham and Bolton following big cup ties serve to highlight the knife edge that Wigan Athletic are currently perched on. The main priority has to be Premier League survival, but a win in the FA Cup semi final would provide some icing for the cake and push Wigan into new pastures. The worst case scenario of achieving neither would be a hammer blow for the club.

Roberto Martinez is a shrewd manager and if anyone can guide Latics through the coming weeks it is he. The win at Everton showed the talent he has at his disposal. Despite their lowly league placing Wigan Athletic have the best quality squad they have ever had. Martinez’ main task will be to ensure that such quality continues to shine through consistently in the matches that remain.

A place in the Europa League would be fantastic. But avoiding relegation is what Martinez will have in mind above anything else.

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Stoke City v Wigan Athletic: Bogey team again?

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There was a bad joke being bandied about last summer that Pep Guardiola might be going to Stoke – after all he had been talking about taking a year out of football. Joking apart, a match against Stoke should not be taken lightly. Despite their emphasis on physicality they do have players who can play good football. Moreover the crowd noise at the Brittania Stadium places them at the peak of the league’s decibel table.

Wigan Athletic go into this match with relegation breathing down their backs. Is it a good time to go to Stoke? The Potters have had a torrid time recently, with only one win in the last 8 league matches. However, they have lost only a single  home match this season, that one being largely influenced by Jon Walters’ two own goals and penalty miss in the 4-0 loss to Chelsea. The Potters are a level above Wigan in terms of financial outlay and their fans are getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of delivery of their more well paid players. Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones will compete for the centre forward position, alongside leading scorer Walters. Michael Owen scored a goal in the defeat at Swansea last week, after coming off the bench for the last 5 minutes. It was his fifth appearance as a substitute and he has not started a game all season.  Neither Charlie Adam nor Matthew Etherington have been regulars in the team this season. Stoke’s game is built on a physical, but capable defence. They have conceded 27 goals so far this season, compared with Wigan’s 43.  The giant Robert Huth forms a formidable centre of defence with Ryan Shawcross. Huth is 6ft 3in tall, but so are  full backs, Ryan Shotton and Geoff Cameron.

Wigan are likely to approach this match cautiously with a conservative starting lineup containing only one mainline striker, Franco Di Santo. If Stoke’s defence does have a weakness it is probably at full back, but Wigan lack a genuine winger to take advantage, both Ryo Miyaichi and Albert Crusat out with long-term injuries. Following a good display in the cup tie at Macclesfield, Callum McManaman might well be introduced at some stage, but Martinez is likely to start with Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney behind lone centre forward, Di Santo. Given the strong possibility of an aerial bombardment by Stoke, Martinez will be looking at having height in his defence. Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa will most likely form the back three, with Ronnie Stam and Jean Beausejour at wing back. However, there remains an option of providing more height in defence by bringing in either Adrian Lopez or Roman Golobart at centre back, with Boyce at right wing back. The two Jimmy Macs will almost certainly anchor the centre of midfield, although Martinez may choose to deploy a  third holding midfielder  there – David Jones or Roger Espinoza – at the expense of Gomez.

Given the fixture list coming up, Wigan will be anxious to get at least a point out of this match. They are going to have to work hard physically if they are to keep Stoke at bay. At the same time, they will also want to stay free of red cards or further injuries, given the key game against Southampton coming up on Saturday. Let’s hope Roberto Martinez surprises us and puts forward a well balanced lineup, resisting the temptation to pass the initiative to Stoke by playing with only one mainline striker.

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WEST HAM UNITED v WIGAN ATHLETIC – CAPITAL ONE CUP PREVIEW

In the second round of the Capital One Cup Latics destroyed Nottingham Forest through superb finishing. They fielded a mixed team, but with an experienced back three providing defensive stability. Let’s  hope the back three for tonight’s game have that  kind of experience and resolve to deal with the aerial bombardment that is to be expected.

West Ham beat Crewe 2-0 in the last round, Nicky Maynard scoring the first goal, but refusing to celebrate against his old club.  We saw the same on Saturday with Rodallega’s goal at the DW Stadium. Let’s hope that Mohamed Diame does not appear on the scoresheet tonight to repeat that. He was most people’s man of the match in their last minute draw with Sunderland at the weekend. West Ham put out a mixed team for the encounter with Crewe. They have  a tricky London derby against QPR coming up on Monday, but still might be tempted to put on a few more first team regulars given the six day gap involved.

What can we hope for in this difficult match? Neither Callum McMananan nor Ryo Miyaichi started in the Forest match, but both came on as substitutes against Fulham on Saturday. We can expect Mauro Boselli to start at centre forward and the attacking option would be to put the two young wingers upfront alongside him, although Albert Crusat also justifies being brought back into the fold. However, this is not the normal Martinez formation. On Saturday we went back to the lone centre forward system, with midfield players on each side. Playing the pedestrian Gomez nominally on the right wing deprived the team of pace and power. Both Gomez and Maloney are creative players but playing them together just does not seem to work.

Antolin Alcaraz is still  unable to return from injury, so Adrian Lopez will probably replace him. More than anything else it has been the sheer physicality of the English game that has caused Lopez most problems since his move from Galicia. Tonight will provide him with another stern test if he is included in the lineup.  In the Forest game Ivan Ramis played in the most central position of the back three and looked comfortable there. Gary Caldwell was our player of the year last season, but his recent form has been  poor.  His apparent petulance after being rightly substituted on Saturday was not what one would expect from the captain who usually leads by example. His form has dipped – being outjumped by Rodallega for the opening goal on Saturday being symptomatic – so he may be given the chance to redeem himself tonight.

David Jones is likely to appear, either as left wingback or in central midfield. We can expect Ronnie Stam to come in at right wing back. Ben Watson has looked rusty after his long layoff from first choice duty, so he might figure in central midfield. There also remains the option of testing James McArthur’s fitness and giving the young and promising Fraser Fyvie his first start .

Whatever lineup Martinez puts out we can expect a hard and physical tussle. Sam Allardyce is not the Hammers’ fans favourite all time manager, but he has brought them back to the Premier League. For the Crewe  visit there was a crowd of over 18,000 at the Boleyn Ground, sizeable by League Cup standards. The small pitch and crowd support make West  Ham a difficult side to play away from home. Not knowing what strength of lineup each team is going to put out makes it hard to predict any kind of outcome to this encounter.  With the exception of the fine display at Forest, Wigan Athletic’s performance in cup competitions  over recent years has been infuriating. Let’s hope that whatever  the lineup the Wigan team will play with enthusiasm, style and pride.

Nottingham Forest 1 Wigan Athletic 4 – Boselli leads the rout

One of the criticisms often leveled at Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic teams is that they cannot finish. Four brilliantly executed goals destroyed their Championship opponents in this match.

Forest had dominated the early proceedings. However, in the 25th minute Ronnie Stam went on one of his foraging runs down the right and whipped in a trademark cross. It cut out the goalkeeper and defenders but not Mauro Boselli, who nipped in to score an opportunist header. How often last season Stam had played similar balls in that nobody capitalized on. The goal shocked Forest and more were to follow. Suddenly there were acres of space in midfield and classy Latics took full advantage. Watson and Jones started to dominate the centre of midfield, with their silky skills and high workrate, linking up well with the forwards and the wing backs.

Roberto Martinez had kept only four players from the team that had started at Southampton, and all at the back: Al Habsi, Ramis, Figueroa and Alcaraz, who was captain for the night in the absence of Caldwell. Ramis was to move to the centre of the back line of three, with Figueroa taking up his now more familiar position left of centre. There were two specialist wing backs in Stam and Beausejour, Watson and Jones in central midfield and Gomez, Crusat and Boselli further forward.

Latics were to add to their tally on the 35th minute mark when Maynor Figueroa hit an absolute screamer from 30 yards, the ball flying across goalkeeper Camp into the far corner of the net. This followed nice approach play by Crusat and Watson. Forest defender Halford could be faulted for not making sufficient effort to block Figeroa’s shot, but it was a truly stunning strike. Latics made it three a minute before half time when Jordi Gomez hit a right-footed rocket past Camp, after receiving from Crusat 20 yards out. Even before then Gomez had gone close a couple of times and Boselli had two clear penalties not given. One was a handball in the area, the second when he was pushed when in a goalscoring position. The Argentine was also unlucky with a clever flick that would have put Crusat clear, but for a deflection.

The second half started and Forest were starting to recover from the shellshock of the last 20 minutes of the first half . After only two minutes had passed Simon Cox got them back in the game with a spectacular 30 yard shot. They started to press, pushing Wigan on the back foot. Latics seemed content to defend and hold their lead. Callum McManaman came on for Jordi Gomez after 72 minutes. Antolin Alcaraz carelessly got himself a second yellow card with a trip on Moussi in the 78th minute, but the defence held resolute. A couple of minutes later Ryo Miyaichi came on to make his debut in place of Albert Crusat. Fraser Fyvie was also make his competitive bow three minutes later for Mauro Boselli.

As the match was winding down Miyaichi revealed his blistering pace, passing inside the box the Callum McManaman who made finishing look easy, side stepping his marker and coolly placing the ball past Camp.

The Good

Wigan Athletic’s performances in cup competitions in the Martinez era have been poor in the past. It had seemed like the players had not been interested. This was not the case here. Martinez smartly chose a team with a strong backbone in defence, with a good balance in midfield and upfront. The players showed commitment and at times they looked almost as classy as the first choice lineup at Southampton last weekend. Latics clearly have strength in depth and their now well-established style of play makes it easy for players to step in. Everybody knows their role and there are at least two players seriously challenging for selection in all eleven positions.

Up front Latics look in really good shape. There are three central strikers of varying styles, but each one a quality player. In this match Mauro Boselli led the line with skill and effort, getting into good positions and meriting his opportunist goal. The arrival of Ivan Ramis has given Latics another quality central defender, so necessary when one of the three regulars gets injured or is suspended.

The Bad

What a shame Alcaraz made a reckless challenge to get his second yellow card and get sent off. He has a great technique and is physically strong. His career at Latics has been dogged by injuries and sometimes reckless decision making. At his best he is one of the classier central defenders in the division.

Player ratings

Ali Al Habsi: 7 – solid and did what he needed to.

Antolin Alcaraz : 7 – played well until his sending off.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – looked a natural in Gary Caldwell’s role. Quickly getting accustomed to the pace of the English game.

Maynor Figueroa: 9 – notwithstanding his spectacular goal he has developed into an excellent central defender. His positional sense and power make him a fine player. Outstanding performance.

Ronnie Stam: 8 – as always attacked with verve, his crosses being menacing for the opposition defence. Worked hard in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 7 – a class act as a wing back. Performed his dual role in defence and attack with his usual diligence.

Ben Watson: 6 – worked hard and showed his class. At times seemed to be trying too hard, hitting ambitious passes that did not quite come off. More to come from him, given the chance.

David Jones: 7 – that cultured left foot together with a high workrate helped him make a good contribution.

Jordi Gomez: 8 – excellent passing and posed an attacking threat. His right footed rocket shot for his goal was a surprise to us all. Let’s see more of that Jordi!

Mauro Boselli: 8 – led the line with skill and panache. Looked dangerous and linked up well with teammates.

Albert Crusat: 6 – not his best match but he put in some nice touches. The best is yet to come from the diminutive winger.

Substitutes:

Callum McManaman – took his goal with such coolness and self confidence. Has been unlucky not to be given more opportunities in the past.

Ryo Miyaichi – impressive in his brief time on the pitch. This speed merchant could have a key role this season, especially in the closing stages when the opposition tires.

Fraser Fyvie – not on for long, so hard to judge. Clearly one for the future.