Callum for Wembley

Manchester City v Wigan Athletic - FA Cup Final

Being ‘Man of the Match’ in an FA Cup Final can be hard to live up to. Callum McManaman knows that all too well.

Just eleven months ago McManaman was the toast of the town as he led Gael Clichy and the Manchester City defence a merry dance at Wembley. He had not only been the star of the Final, but also of the whole FA Cup tournament. He had started in all of Latics’ seven matches in that cup run, scoring three goals and making two assists. His free running in the final trapped Pablo Zabaleta into a red card, turning the momentum of the game. His superbly taken goal from Jordi Gomez’s exquisite pass had sealed the semi-final win over Millwall.

Who could have known that just three days later he would get an ankle injury that would not only put him on crutches, but seriously knock back his career prospects in the process. A burgeoning young talent had been coming through, with managers of the rich and famous clubs casting an eye in his direction. The injury put everything on hold.

Many Latics supporters had viewed McManaman’s injury as a kind of blessing in disguise. If it had not happened the young player would most likely have been whisked away to a big club rather than helping Latics get back to the Premier League. Moreover the excellent Shaun Maloney remained at the club following the large turnover of players in the summer. Latics had a new manager in Owen Coyle and he would have at his disposal two players who could tear the hearts out of the defences of Championship sides.

Those hopes were soon quashed as Maloney’s injury In September put him out of action long term. Moreover McManaman was dealing with illness and niggling injuries that hampered his return to full fitness. When Coyle left in December, McManaman had made hardly any impact up to that point. Fans were hoping that new manager Uwe Rosler could get the best out of the exciting young forward.

At this point of the season McManaman has started in only 14 of the 41 league matches played, scoring one goal and making one assist. Moreover he has rarely played the full ninety minutes. However, he has started in four of the five FA Cup matches Latics have played, scoring in the home tie with MK Dons.

It has been a disappointing season so far for Callum McManaman, but there is still time for him to make a major impact. He has clearly enjoyed playing at Wembley, judging by his performances against Millwall and Manchester City, maybe less so than in his appearance as a 60th minute substitute in the Community Shield.

Rosler will surely take McManaman into strong consideration for lining up in the semi-final against Arsenal at the weekend. Coincidentally it was against the Gunners that his career took that set-back last season. Saturday’s game will be one in which he will be keen to impress, showing a big audience that he still has that talent that has been hiding under the surface for so long this season.

If he is given the chance McManaman can get his career back on fast-track with a star performance against the Gunners. At his best there are few more exciting players to watch in English football.

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History made, as final beckons for Wigan

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Wigan Athletic made history today after a professional performance at Wembley saw off Millwall to secure a spot in their first ever FA Cup final.

The 2-0 scoreline was probably a fair outcome given the number of chances created on either side, while the quality of the strikes outlined the gulf in class between the two sets of players. Shaun Maloney got things started when he met a gorgeous, floated cross from Arouna Koné in mid-air 25 minutes into the fixture. Callum McManaman, a real threat throughout, had earlier gone close with a rasping drive, while Jordi Gomez’s first time effort was excellently parried by Millwall keeper David Forde. The first half petered out with Wigan comfortably in cruise control.

The second half was a different story, as Millwall stepped up their effort to press high up the pitch, forcing mistakes out of the their opponents. A period of sustained pressure from the London side saw some last ditch defending from set pieces preserve Wigan’s lead, but it was the Premier League outfit that looked the more threatening from open play. McManaman, reveling in his key creative role out wide, tormented his marker time and time again, cutting onto his right foot to blaze over before crossing dangerously with his left foot just behind Koné. A delicious through-ball by Gomez with just over 10 minutes left put him in a great position however, and he made no mistake by classily rounding Forde and slotting home to celebrate the goal he thoroughly deserved.

The Good:

This was the best possible outcome. It was a job well done, with two excellent goals, a clean sheet, no yellow cards or injuries. A huge morale boost for a team that has now gone five matches undefeated and won six of the last nine. Wigan’s two little creators, Maloney and McManaman, made the difference.

The Bad: 

Today is not a day to pick at imperfections, but a day to enjoy, celebrate, and savour. With hope, the violence caught by television cameras in the Millwall supporter section did not lead to serious injury and was contained as supporters left the stadium.

Player Ratings: 

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Few Wigan supporters would begrudge his return to the starting lineup, despite a wobbly season. Joel Robles did nothing wrong and indeed looks a very promising young goalkeeper, but he was always likely to make way for the Omani international and club talisman before the end of the season. It was a fitting and kind reward for Ali’s service and standards in his time with the club that he could make his return at Wembley. The big question now is whether he retains his place for league play.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Solid defensive play with one important interception standing out. Has proven a good stand-in captain in Gary Caldwell’s absence and will be extremely proud if he retains the armband to lead the team out in the final.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — An excellent player who has made a huge difference since returning from injury. It is hard to imagine Wigan being involved in the relegation struggle this season had he been fit and available for the majority of the season.

Paul Scharner: 7 — A couple wobbly moments, but he made more crucial tackles and interceptions than anyone on the pitch. You could see what it meant to him at the end of the match — he’ll be making his second cup final appearance for Wigan (he is the only member of the current squad who played in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United seven years ago).

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Very solid and composed defensive performance, as has become his habit.

James McCarthy: 6 — Didn’t really assert himself on the game, but didn’t let anyone down and worked very hard as always.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Very involved, retaining possession in attack and making a significant amount of tackles and interceptions on the defensive side of things. His pass for McManaman’s goal was beautiful. Unlucky with a first time effort after a flowing move in the first half.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Good first half, capped by an excellent goal. Quiet in the second and eventually pushed out wide when Jean Beausejour was withdrawn — a position from which he has less impact on the game.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Not a bad game, but not his best either. Second time running he has been substituted early — possibly carrying a niggle?  That said, Wigan lost the midfield when he was withdrawn. He rarely loses the ball when in possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent, positive, brave performance, taking risks with his direct dribbling and powerful shooting. Took his goal brilliantly, and might have scored another couple but for a brilliant save by Forde and an overhit finish. Only made his first start for the club a couple months ago but is fast becoming a key creator for Wigan. Certainly offers something the team has been lacking since Victor Moses’ departure in the summer. Surely in with a shout for player of the tournament.

Arouna Koné: 7.5 — Very good, confident front-man play. Single-handedly created the first goal with a brilliant “sombrero”, turn, run and cross. Only had one real chance which Forde beat away with his feet. In good form.

Subs:

James McArthur — Brought on to give Beausejour a rest and help the team regain possession, but the substitution didn’t work. Not so much McArthur’s fault in particular, who put in his usual shift, but the team suffered an anxious patch before McManaman’s goal settled matters.

Angelo Henriquez — A strange substitution, with Franco Di Santo presumably sitting next to him on the bench. With the match just about settled at that point, you would think Martinez would have given a Wigan player the big-game experience, rather than an on-loan Manchester United striker who is likely to get plenty of it in the future. One must hope it does not have to do with the Argentine’s intentions this summer.

Five questions and a conclusion as Wigan sets off for Wembley

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While most of us have spent the week looking forward to a fantastic occasion for all involved in the Wigan Athletic community, the headlines circulating have largely focused on the negative — whether it’s the ticket situation at Wembley, or the possibility of this cup run distracting from survival in the Premier League. Without dismissing those — here are some talking points ahead of the club’s very first FA Cup semi-final.

Who will play?

It’s a peculiar situation, this. Roberto Martinez used the early rounds of the cup to give his fringe and youth players a chance to show what they could do. This worked to great effect and gave people like Callum McManaman, Roman Golobart and Joel Robles the experience and confidence to make the step up in the league when called upon.

Then, all of a sudden, the club found itself with a daunting quarter-final draw, away at Everton. Martinez took the middle ground and opted for a mixed lineup, featuring four players who would been unlikely to start in the league previously. The team produced the result of the season, an emphatic 3-0 away victory, and has gone on to start the subsequent three league matches, winning two and drawing one.

So does Roberto persist with the lineup that has turned Wigan’s fortunes around? Or does he mix it up again in order to involve people who have not featured recently, but  may well be needed between now and the end of the league campaign? After years of service, do people like Gary Caldwell and Ali Al Habsi not deserve to play at Wembley in the club’s first FA Cup semi-final? If so, can you include them without disrupting a winning team?

Has the FA Cup been a hindrance to Wigan’s survival efforts?

So far, a resounding no. Quite the contrary. With the team previously struggling in the league, the strong competition for places and confidence-boosting results in the cup have been pivotal to the club’s turnaround in fortunes. A win against Millwall on Saturday would provide another injection of belief ahead of the very difficult trip to Manchester City on Wednesday — who incidentally could be their rivals in the cup final as well.

That said, injuries and suspensions could do a world of damage. The squad is fitter than it has been all season and there is cover in almost every position. But if someone like Shaun Maloney or Antolin Alcaraz were to miss the rest of the season to injury or three league matches to suspension with the FA Cup to blame, then that would be a different story.

Are we ready for Europe?

Wigan is a win away from the Europa League, assuming Chelsea maintains top four status. After another season of struggle and the toughest relegation fight yet, is the potential of Europa League football coming a season too soon? Perhaps. Look what it has done to Newcastle’s season, although an argument could be made that it has helped Spurs — who admittedly possess a much larger squad — find their mojo under a new manager. Birmingham famously reached the promised land of Europe via cup-run only to be relegated and participate in it from the Championship — where they’ve remained since. If the same were to happen to the Latics, would it be a step forward or a step back? The squad Roberto has built, even without top earners, would be more than capable of achieving promotion from the Championship.

The milestones achieved in the last decade: promotion to the Premier League, a League Cup final, wins over the top teams in the country, and now an FA Cup semi-final  — were, and should continue to be savoured. The Europa League would certainly be the next level, and even if it comes a little too early, should be celebrated.

Would qualification for the Europa League help us retain our best players and attract more?

In publicly praising Arouna Koné recently, Roberto appeared to both give the player a shot of confidence for the crucial run-in, and make it clear that every player is available for a good price at Wigan. It’s been the working model, and one that has served the club well. But with Franco Di Santo, Antolin Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa’s contacts coming up for renewal, and a player like Koné running out of time to make one last big move, the Europa League could be the carrot the club needs to retain their key players, for once.

It could also be the carrot that convinces someone like Aidan McGeady to join.

“Only” 22,000 going to Wembley?

Few of the news outlets I’ve come across have pointed out that 22,000 is more than a quarter of the Wigan population. For a club that has spent most of its years in non-league, followed by fourth and third tier football with crowd under the 2,000 mark, the growth of our supporter base is truly exceptional. Rather than focus all talk on the 9,000 tickets Wigan Athletic was not able to sell, lets enjoy how far this community has come and enjoy the party. Roberto’s comments on the matter here.

What are the odds of a dodgy refereeing decision helping Millwall into the final to maximize ticket sales for the FA?

This cup run is a testament to Martinez’s work to strengthen for the long-term

The manager’s long-term vision is slowly being realized before our eyes. There have been almost no big name or money signings, but instead steady investment in young promising players, facilities and coaching. Two years ago, Wigan Athletic would not have been able to field a second string starting XI away at a Championship side and emerge classy 4-1 winners. Nor would a mixed team have traveled to Goodison Park and thumped Everton’s strongest lineup in an FA Cup quarter final. That the man of the match award against Huddersfield went to Callum McManaman, who had at that point not yet made a senior league start, could not be more telling. Against Everton, it went to another squad player, Jordi Gomez. Wigan now has strength in depth. Roman Golobart, who started in the centre of defence for most of the cup run, let no one down when he stepped in against Stoke City in the league. Mauro Boselli, unable to get his league form going, played his part with a match-winning piece of quality as he had done in the League Cup earlier in the year. Current reserve centre forward Franco Di Santo may have lost his place to McManaman last month but came on to partner Lionel Messi for Argentina during a competitive World Cup Qualifier against Bolivia, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, the current fourth choice centre-back is Scotland’s captain. We’ve come a long way.

Everton 0 Wigan Athletic 3: Rampant Latics into semi-finals for the first time

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Three goals in four magical minutes highlighted a complete performance by a mixed but well balanced Wigan XI as they reached the FA Cup’s final four for the first time in the club’s history.

However precarious their league position, the accomplishment at Goodison Park shines a light on the progress achieved in the Roberto Martinez era. Not only was this an impressive away win against a strong team hungry for silverware — several of today’s starters were fringe players, and the captain was rested. This sort of depth simply did not exist at the club three years ago.

In a more immediate sense, this was the best possible way to put the Liverpool fracas behind them and bore a lot more resemblance to the success at Reading. There is no hiding that Wigan’s best football is coming away from home in that black strip. Before Figueroa’s opening goal — an achievement in itself as it came from a set piece against one of the biggest teams in the league — Shaun Maloney had hit the post with an excellent curling effort and James McCarthy had been denied by Tim Howard’s replacement in the Everton goal, Jan Mucha. At the other end, Everton had been limited to a single chance well-saved by young Spanish keeper Joel Robles.

The second half was an exercise in resistance, with the sorely missed Antolin Alcaraz comfortably returning to the centre of defence after a season blighted with injury. Everton huffed and puffed but couldn’t create the breakthrough, and Wigan cruised to a second consecutive 3-0 away victory.

The Good:

Performances like this breathe fresh hope into the club’s survival prospects in the league. The return of Antolin Alcaraz brought defensive solidity and an assured presence. Concentration and focus was everything is wasn’t against Liverpool a week ago.

Martinez got his tactics right, deploying a strong back four, with Jean Beausejour and Callum McManaman in more advanced wing positions and Jordi Gomez partnering James McCarthy in midfield. Much of Wigan’s attacking success came down the left wing, where both Beausejour and Gomez were able to find space and deliver left footed crosses into the box. Though comparatively quiet on the right hand side, Callum McManaman looked sharp and took his goal superbly. His presence in a more traditional winger role was probably also intended to keep Leighton Baines pegged back, and was largely effective in doing so.

The finishing was superb and came from different areas of the pitch, from different types of situations. A set piece, a breakaway, and a goal from attacking possession. Header, right-foot, left-foot.

Joel Robles had a very good game in goal and looks a promising young deputy for Ali Al-Habsi.

The Bad:

Injuries to Callum McManaman and his replacement, Ryo Miyaichi, were the only negatives from today’s match. Results elsewhere, however — with victories for QPR and Aston Villa and an away point for Southampton — heap the pressure on Wigan to keep up.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7.5 — Made several good saves, both high and low, suggesting he is an agile shot stopper. Dealt well with a couple crosses and on the whole looks a decent young keeper. Martinez will be keen to make his loan move permanent this summer.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Focused and disciplined in defense. Didn’t get forward but largely dealt with the significant threat of Baines and Steven Pienaar down the flank.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 — Strong and composed. Surely the season would have gone quite differently if he had been fit and available. Will captain Gary Caldwell get his place back?

Paul Scharner: 8 — Excellent, with one spectacular tackle to block a Baines cross in the first half, and good work in the air to thwart Marouanne Fellaini.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Another excellent performer, strong in defence and among the goalscorers once again.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Steady and carried greater defensive responsibility given his more attacking partner in midfield.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Took his goal extremely well and held his own in a less familiar central midfield role. Not as strong defensively as James McArthur but his left foot offered greater variety in Wigan’s attacking play.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Good performance from the Chilean, who rarely wasted the ball, showed some quick footwork and linked up well with his teammates. Most of Wigan’s attacking play came down his side.

Callum McManaman: 8 — Excellent touch and finish for the goal. Had earlier played a lovely cross-pitch ball to Shaun Maloney, who hit the post. Not terribly involved, but sharp when called into action. Pushing for a league start.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Unlucky not to be on the score sheet. Buzzed about as ever, drawing fouls and causing trouble.

Arouna Kone: 7.5 — Superb hold-up play all match long despite battling two physical central defenders on his own. Headed a decent chance over the bar early in the first half but didn’t have any other opportunities to score himself. Rewarded with an assist for the third goal.

Subs:

Ryo Miyaichi: 6 — Looked a bit rusty after missing several months through injury. Went off injured again after being clattered into the advertising boards.

James McArthur: N/A — Came on for Miyaichi and hold on to the result.