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.

Manchester United vs. Wigan: Will jet lag tell?

One of the problems with a global recruitment policy as far flung as Wigan’s — Oman, Japan, and Honduras for a start — is that when international break comes round, half of the starting XI are likely to be jet lagged for the ensuing Premier League match.

Latics famously under-performed in the home loss to Swansea last season after players like Maynor Figueroa and Antolin Alcaraz had only landed in Manchester a day before the match. This year, ahead of the always daunting trip to Old Trafford, Roberto has again made the point that it is extremely difficult to prepare for a match without knowing who you have at your disposal.

Players like Antolin Alcaraz have played two matches in the past week, sandwiched by two day-long trips to the other side of the world, and will likely need — but not get — two full days to recover. Even if they survive the 90 minutes, proper rest and recuperation is never achieved.

Manchester United supporters might point to similar troubles, but replacing a tired Luis Antonio Valencia with Ashley Young or Nani is a bit different than, say, Adrian Lopez on for Antolin Alcaraz.

The Paraguayan (groin) is one of two major doubts for the Latics going into the fixture, with Jean Beausejour the second (hamstring). If Alcaraz misses out, we’ll expect to see the Ramis-Caldwell-Figueroa trio that figured against Stoke at the back. If Beausejour doesn’t make it, Maynor Figueroa will be pushed forward into the wingback position. If neither are available, the beneficiary will likely be David Jones at left wingback. The midfield should be the standard Scottish/Irish diamond, with Di Santo and Koné up front. The only variation in the attacking third I can imagine is the more conservative addition of Jordi Gomez at the expense of one of the strikers. Or — you never know — the introduction of the lightning-quick Ryo Miyaichi for added counter-attacking threat.

Manchester United, meanwhile, only have two international strikers to choose from after Robin van Persie picked up a knock  playing for his country. Wayne Rooney is still sidelined thanks to that unfortunate encounter with Hugo Rodallega’s boots. They’ll have to rely on Chicharito Hernandez and Danny Wellbeck, which will undoubtedly feel quite a hardship.

The clubs live in different realities. Watching Wigan outplay and topple Ferguson’s side on that special evening last April was one the greatest football spectator experiences I can remember. They played with belief, desire and no shortage of skill. One suspects that the ultimate significance of said result will not be lost on United’s players or fans — and they’ll be looking to put it behind them this Saturday at Old Trafford. But the gap on the pitch narrows each time these two teams play each other. If Latics can retain that belief and sin miedo attitude, a first result at Old Trafford is possible.