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.