Wigan vs. Norwich: Six-pointer at the DW

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If Wigan Athletic is a team in the ascendancy with four wins out of six, then Norwich is one fighting valiantly to arrest the opposite. After an amazing run of unbeaten games in late 2012, the Canaries find themselves just seven points clear of Latics in 12th place, having drawn five of their last seven matches.

Tellingly, all of those stalemates came against mid-table or relegation-threatened sides. All signs point to a loss of momentum for Chris Hughton’s charges, and if left to the Laws of Form, a victory for Wigan appears the most likely outcome.

Of course, it’s never that simple, and nothing shakes things up quite like an international break. Some players, most vocally Paul Scharner, have benefited from a two-week break. Internationals at both clubs, however, will have played two matches in the space of five days. People like Maynor Figueroa and Ali Al-Habsi were not only key performers for their countries in high stakes World Cup Qualifiers, but have had to recover from flights back from Panama and Australia and the jet lag that comes with it.

Enough has been written about Wigan’s post-international break struggles, however. There is a real opportunity at the DW this weekend, and there is a squad to achieve it. Many eyes will be focused on Callum McManaman, so influential in Latics’ two most recent victories. The last few weeks will have brought very mixed emotions for the young winger, after the ecstasy of scoring against Everton followed by the media witch hunt after his bad challenge on Massima Haidara. Glad that discussion is over. But it will be interesting to see how the player reacts. If recovered from his own injury, one would expect him to start. Roberto Martinez’s comments in the build-up to the match about his potential as a future England star should not only give him a shot of confidence, but hopefully minimize ill-treatment from the visiting supporters.

Given he has now fielded the same starting XI for consecutive victories over strong opposition, there is no reason to believe Martinez will not do the same tomorrow. This should mean another start for young Spaniard Joel Robles in goal, who looks increasingly likely to be permanent signing in the summer. He’ll — hopefully — be protected by a back four of Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Paul Scharner and Maynor Figueroa. James McCarthy and Jordi Gomez would continue in midfield, with Shaun Maloney ahead of them in a free role. McManaman and Beausejour should retain their places on the wings, while Arouna Koné will lead the line. This leaves Franco Di Santo, who partnered Lionel Messi in attack for a period of time in Argentina’s 1-1 draw against Bolivia, on the bench once again. As it does Ali Al-Habsi, captain Gary Caldwell, and James McArthur.

A win tomorrow would heap pressure on Southampton, Sunderland and Aston Villa, who are four, four and three points ahead of Latics respectively having played an extra match. It could also suck Norwich into the battle — although with 34 points already and home fixtures against Reading, Aston Villa, West Brom and Swansea, they should be fine.

More importantly, another win would make it five in seven for Wigan and fuel the belief that they can do it yet again.

Wigan Athletic 0 Swansea City 2: Martinez under pressure as former club out-Roberto’s him

Dark days at the DW as Roberto Martinez’s Wigan were outdone by a side he assembled and styled, but couldn’t break down. It was a painful, if strangely comforting realization that while Swansea are currently much better at executing the Spaniard’s footballing vision, at least they are living proof that it can actually work.

This fixture had been seen by most Latics supporters as a must-win — indeed three points would have boosted the side out of the relegation zone. It was one of three winnable fixtures before the terrifying weeks ahead involving trips to Stamford Bridge, Anfield, the Emirates, and the visit of Manchester United. Swansea, while a respectable side, had a poor away record, and we had deserved to win the reverse fixture. The mood before kickoff was optimistic.

Of course, it all went wrong. Martinez’s team selection has been criticized by just about everyone including Dave Whelan, who took issue with the absence of “three quality players” in the starting lineup — presumably Mo Diame, Hugo Rodallega and Victor Moses. The manager has since attributed their omissions to the effects of travel from the international break, with one player arriving late Friday night ahead of the Saturday afternoon kickoff. While this was true of Diame and Moses, both in Africa on international duty, it was not so of Hugo Rodallega, who has long lost his place in the Colombian national squad.

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of Conor Sammon at centre-forward, while Franco Di Santo would take over the free role traditionally reserved for Victor Moses. The pair delivered their weakest performances for the club, with Sammon making a mess of the single promising breakaway he was involved in and Di Santo completely lost in a position he was clearly not familiar with. Jean Beausejour was again lively in the first half, but neither Sammon nor Di Santo ever looked like tucking away his crosses. Emmerson Boyce went closest with a far post header.

Swansea had threatened on several occasions, with Ali Al-Habsi looking sharp and Gary Caldwell clearing off the line. They got their reward just before half-time, when Gylfi Sigurdsson was allowed to take two touches before curling an excellent shot past Al-Habsi from outside the box.

Martinez made two half-time changes, introducing Victor Moses and Mo Diame for James McArthur and Conor Sammon — almost to immediate effect. But just as a Latics equalizer looked possible, Sigurdsson struck again — this time from a direct free-kick. His two strikes were the kind of quality Latics have lacked this season that Charles N’Zogbia provided last time around. Jordi Gomez, one of the few in the side capable of shooting like that, has simply not done it.

He did, however, get himself fouled and Nathan Dyer received a red card to give Latics some hope. Hugo Rodallega’s introduction added a bit of movement to the attack moments later, but Michel Vorm was excellent and Wigan’s finishing was uninspired.

The Good:

Not much. Beausejour’s first half (his second was poor). Sustained pressure and a series of half chances in the second half. Rodallega when he came on.

The Bad:

This is a troublesome result. We can still survive, results elsewhere have been kind. But the club needs points urgently. If we fail to get at least 4 points from the next two matches, we could be cut adrift going into the final stretch. Roberto is hosting a Q&A with fans as I type. He needs to regain their support, and motivate his team for the crucial next two matches.

A Neutral Would Say

Latics improved dramatically with the introductions of Moses, Diame and Rodallega. But the finishing was poor. Swansea deserved the points.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 7 —  Takes some blame for the second goal, but was otherwise outstanding, making a number of crucial saves.

Antolin Alcaraz: 6 — Not at fault for the goals.

Gary Caldwell: 6 — Was enjoying a decent performance with a couple key tackles/clearances. And then the goals flew in.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Struggled with Dyer. Ironically one of Latics best attacking players when he got forward — delivered two of the best crosses all match.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Did not contribute much going forward, and had trouble with Sinclair.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Very good in first half, poor in second. It is becoming a pattern for him — lack of match fitness?

James McArthur: 6 — Worked hard but lost the midfield battle in the first half. Substituted in second.

James McCarthy: 6 — See James McArthur for first half. A bit more possession in second but no cutting edge.

Jordi Gomez: 5 — Did not produce.

Franco Di Santo: 5 — Looked lost and finished poorly, his weakest performance in some time.

Conor Sammon: 4 — Like a fish out of water.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 7 — Looked far more likely to score when he came on than anyone else.

Mo Diame: 6 — His finishing was poor, but good attacking intent and skill to create openings.

Victor Moses: 6 — Bright start that faded after Swansea’s second, and the sending off.

Bolton 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Vital win kickstarts revival

Wigan Athletic took a giant step towards revival (and survival?) with a 2-1 success over Bolton at the Reebok Stadium. A loss would have cut Latics eight points adrift and delivered a probably fatal blow to the side’s morale. Instead, the gap between the bottom five has been narrowed to an encouraging two points. Better still, the squad has a tasty fixture list coming up including three home fixtures against Aston Villa, Swansea and West Brom, with a trip to Norwich in between. Without getting ahead of ourselves, things are suddenly looking up at the DW.

Martinez’s men started slowly but started to take control of the match about 20 minutes in. Franco Di Santo, working hard up front with little service, received the ball deep and weaved before fizzing a powerful attempt just over and wide. Victor Moses embarked on a mazy trademark run, crashing a left-footed effort into the side netting (a trademark finish). Bolton’s approaches were largely limited to set pieces and hopeful shooting from outside the box, while Latics enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession. Pressure finally told when Gary Caldwell impressively beat David Wheater — who must have at least 5 inches on the Scot — in the air to power home a Jean Beausejour corner late in the first half. 1-0 Wigan at half-time.

The second half started in much the same vein, with Latics closer to a second than Bolton to an equalizer. A couple of penalty shouts that Howard Webb would have awarded Man United without second thought went unnoticed before Victor Moses spectacularly lost his man down the right flank and delivered the perfect final pass for James McArthur, who could only tap straight into Bolton’s Hungarian keeper’s arms. It was the kind of killer pass that Moses has so often been unable to pick out this season, instead going for glory himself or hesitating at the last second. Roberto spoke about the work they are doing with him on the training ground to address these situations in particular, lets hope it is a sign of things to come.

It was soon deja vu, and with the chance to go 2-0 up spurned, Bolton pull an equalizer out of a hat. The buildup was classic Bolton stuff — a mighty hoof from Adam Bogdan bouncing off the unwitting David N’gog’s back. But the finish was sublime, a left-footed thunderbolt from the underrated Mark Davies. James McArthur later expressed his relief at scoring the winner because Davies was his man. But there was little he could do on this one, and it spoke volumes of Jimmy Mac’s performance that he kept Davies quiet for the rest of the match.

The response was immediate. Latics went for it. With Rodallega now on the pitch, you could see a wave of Latics players pushing forward when Victor Moses broke free on the left and ran through unopposed. His low shot had enough power for the carrot-haired Bogdan to spill it straight into the path of the sprinting James McArthur. This time, the Scot made no mistake and you could see what it meant to the players as they celebrated in front of Latics’ traveling support.

There was a final scare when the impressive Ryo Miyaichi found space in the box after neat interplay and fired off a shot, but Ali Al-Habsi was at his best to deny him a debut goal. Latics created a couple half chances on the counter, but a confused-looking Rodallega made a mess of them. Latics’ defending was steady, on set pieces in particular — enjoying the extra height and defensive nous of Emmerson Boyce at right wing-back, in addition to the three centre-halves — and they held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

The performance and result. They dominated, passed the ball well, Victor Moses created at least three goal-scoring opportunities from open play, and the defending was strong. The commitment and desire matched that of Latics’ spectacular season run-in last year. McCarthy and McArthur were lions in midfield, everyone played their part in a good team win.

The Bad:

The game should have been killed off well before Bolton’s equalizer, and it highlights Latics continued lack of confidence in front of goal. A better team — like Everton a week prior — might have punished Latics’ wastefulness. Jordi Gomez, there to provide that killer pass, was unable to create anything of note. Aside from Moses, the best chances of the game fell to Emmerson Boyce and James McArthur, hardly known for their finishing.

A Neutral Would Say

Latics were good value for the three points here, with Victor Moses in particular proving a headache for a lacklustre Bolton side.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 8 —  Didn’t have much to do, but made a match-winning save when called upon.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7 — Solid, kept it simple.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Defended strongly and made the important breakthrough when Latics were struggling to find a way through.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Decent defensive performance.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — A good choice by Martinez for a game of such importance. Provides less going forward than Ronnie Stam, but made an important contribution.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Faded in the second half, but added another assist to his tally and was involved in much Latics attacking play in the first half. Proving a useful signing.

James McArthur: 8 — A selfless team player, he tackled well, distributed efficiently, and must have covered every blade of grass at the Reebok. The winning goal was great reward for his efforts. Has less in his arsenal than both Mo Diame and Ben Watson offensively but makes up for it in attitude. Very encouraging to see a midfielder busting a gut to get into goalscoring positions as he did twice in this match.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — Showed one moment of true class with a sharp half volley pass to Jean Beausejour in the first half. Fantastic work-rate, good distribution.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Instrumental in keeping possession but ultimately didn’t create enough.

Victor Moses: 8 — Bolton couldn’t handle him. A constant menace, he created the winning goal and should have had an assist after serving it up on a platter for McArthur early in the second half.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Did his job well, had a great effort from distance, but no real scoring chances.

Subs:

Hugo Rodallega: 4 — Didn’t know what day it was. Looked confused when given the ball. A shame, because he found himself in good positions and might have killed the game off.

Dave Jones: N/A — Wasted 45 seconds coming on for Di Santo, good man.