It’s them or us – a look at the Premier League relegation battle

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How soon optimism can dissipate. A momentous 3-0 win at Reading had given Wigan Athletic a real boost and lifted them out of the relegation zone, albeit on goal difference. Then came that painful 4-0 home loss to Liverpool, a horror movie in the making. Can Wigan Athletic pick themselves up, repair their wounded morale and get back into the fray?

The next game for Wigan is one that no realist would expect them to win. The FA Cup 6th round tie at Everton is likely to be largely attended by Latics’ second string. The cup competitions have been the saving grace for Wigan this season, with heartening performances that have helped lift morale within the club. However, Roberto Martinez would be unwise to risk senior players for an FA Cup tie, given Wigan’s precarious league position. If Everton put out their strongest lineup the scoreline could prove scary. The prospect of two consecutive really bad results looms.

That kind of scenario could pose a real challenge for morale within the club, but history shows that Wigan Athletic are resilient. Even after the most disturbing of horrow shows they have shown the soldier’s ability in not looking back.

It’s tight this year. With 10 games to go it is possible for both Sunderland and Newcastle to get sucked into the relegation battle. Both lie 6 points above the relegation zone. However, Sunderland do have some quality and an experienced and capable manager in Martin O’Neill. Newcastle have even more quality players, including transfer window signings and it is unlikely they will get relegated. Norwich above them do not have as much quality, but they are two points ahead of the north east clubs. It would take a calamitous fall for the Canaries to be dragged into the mire.

We are therefore looking at the teams currently in the bottom five – a mini-league between QPR, Reading, Aston Villa, Wigan and Southampton, with the top two surviving.

Let’s take a look at the opposition for Wigan:

Queens Park Rangers won only their third game of the season last weekend, dragging Southampton back into the danger zone. Despite having quality players they have been woeful this season. However, with that kind of quality and a manager as seasoned as Harry Redknapp, don’t count them out. They were lucky to survive last season and fortune could smile on them again. They have yet to play 3 games against the bottom five five teams and 2 against the top five.

Reading looked poor and low on quality against Wigan, but what they lack in class is compensated by their workrate and determination. That spirit has helped them produce last ditch rescues in matches where they have looked down and out. They play 3 games against bottom five and 3 against the top five.

Aston Villa have gambled on youth and their inexperienced defence is very vulnerable. However, senior players such as Charles N’Zogbia and Gabriel Agbonlahor, together with the exciting young striker Christian Benteke pose an attacking threat. They play 3 games against bottom five and 2 against the top five. Their next two games are against QPR and Reading and failure to win at least one of those will put them under great pressure.

Southampton’s bubble is now starting to burst. They had been punching above their weight in lifting themselves out of the relegation zone. A positive, attacking team with a great disciplinary record they don’t deserve to go down. A lot will depend on their resilience. They play only one game against the bottom five and 2 against the top five.

Up to this point results between the “mini-leaguers” put Wigan in front:

1. Wigan Athletic – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W3 D0 L0 – 14 points (from 6 matches)
2. Southampton – Home W1 D2 L0 Away W2 D1 L0 – 13 points (from 7 matches)
3. QPR – Home W0 D2 L1 Away W1 D1 L0 – 6 points (from 5 matches)
4. Aston Villa – Home W1 D0 L2 Away W0 D1 L1 – 4 points (from 5 matches)
5. Reading – Home W0 D0 L1 Away W0 D1 L3 – 1 point (from 5 matches)

Much is going to depend on results in games played between the bottom five. Bad results in two or more of these matches could prove fatal for any of those teams, barring Southampton who only have one remaining, at Reading. The Royals also have home games left against QPR and Aston Villa.

Wigan Athletic have been in this position before and showed the resilience and mental strength to get out of it. Last year’s miraculous type of recovery is unlikely to happen again. It will be more a matter of grinding out results and keeping their heads above water. Wigan will face 2 games against the bottom five and 3 against the top five, a difficult run-in.

Latics fans will hope that survival will still remain a possibility when they face Aston Villa in their final match of the season at the DW Stadium. It would not be the first time that they reached salvation on the final day.

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Tables turned as Latics pinch a point

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A familiar scenario was reversed at the DW this afternoon, as an unfancied relegation-threatened side impressed its audience with a thoroughly dominant and cultured performance, only to be robbed of three points by two goals from set pieces.

Wigan Athletic, so often outdone by slack defending from set pieces after dominating proceedings, saw the tables turned and were fortunate to emerge with a point — which will only seem disappointing to those who didn’t watch the match. Mauricio Pochettino’s high-pressing game denied Latics their usual midfield comforts and limited them to four or five efforts on goal in the 93 minutes played. Southampton’s second half performance at Manchester United in midweek during which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could hardly get the ball no longer seems a fluke. Despite a midfield-heavy lineup, Latics just couldn’t get a grip on the game.

The Good:

Paul Scharner was one of the best, if not Wigan’s man of the match, on his return. It might have been a lot worse without his aerial presence and timely clearances. He never was the most technically gifted player, but a talented, tall and quick — if reluctant —  defender. He looks fit as ever despite limited minutes in Hamburg and slotted into the back three perfectly. When the chips are down, you need players with self-belief who are willing to take a chance, and it was the Austrian’s hopeful effort that landed at Maloney’s feet for the equaliser. It was telling that Ronnie Stam was substituted shortly after making a mess of a Scharner pass.  The Austrian had expertly intercepted a cross and played the ball out, only for the Dutchman’s poor control to put the Latics back in trouble. Scharner’s less-than-pleased reaction must only have expedited Roberto Martinez’s plan to get Stam off the pitch.

The result is a positive, given the circumstances. While most Wigan supporters had thought of the fixture as a must-win, the fact that Southampton remain only three points, and not six, ahead of Latics is hugely important. Their form is likely to dip after the new manager boost, and as Martinez said in his post-match comments it was a point gained.

To see Wigan score two goals from set pieces or hopeful crosses was a bit strange but a big plus. The team also benefited from Scharner’s height on set pieces — with Boyce restored to the right wingback role this will only improve.

The Bad:

It’s hard to gauge if Latics were really poor or if Southampton were just excellent. The Saints’ fitness levels were certainly impressive — perhaps the result of a training week in higher temperatures in Barcelona. Manchester United couldn’t handle them and were very lucky during Wednesday’s second half.

James McCarthy stands out as someone we expect more from. After his late autumn brace and press coverage, he was targeted and subsequently injured against Norwich — his form has suffered ever since. This is not to say the player has been poor in any way — but it is clear to those of us watching that he could dominate, and yet he reduces himself to simple five yard passing. You can’t fault his effort or technique, only his belief. If you gave McCarthy Scharner’s positivity and self-belief, you might have the next Steven Gerrard.

Roger Espinoza had a rough go of it after such an encouraging second half at Stoke. Ronnie Stam unfortunately showed once again this season that his attacking play is not good enough to make up for his poor defending. The substitutes had no effect — Henriquez excepted who did well in his three minutes. While largely down to injuries, Wigan’s bench was thin and there wasn’t a player on the bench that you felt could really make a difference. Compare it to having Rodallega and Diame available in the last half hour this time last year. Callum McManaman showed again that he is quick and 100%, but neither fast or composed. Jordi Gomez was sent on to try and regain possession but couldn’t do it.

The league table is worrying. Reading are in good form. Southampton clearly are. QPR may not have won but have signed half a team as usual and will only improve. Villa — the best bet at the moment — scored three goals at Goodison Park but at least dropped two points in the last minute of injury time. It’s time to start getting results.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not to blame for the goals, made a couple decent reaction saves.

Paul Scharner: 7 — Very good. An excellent loan signing, a positive influence and stop-gap. Inspired confidence and will lend some much-needed experience.

Gary Caldwell: 7 — Was out-jumped in the build-up to the equaliser. Scharner sprinted across anticipating it when he probably should have stayed on his mark. If Caldwell were a few inches taller he would be at a top club. He otherwise had an excellent game making a large number of crucial blocks and interceptions, not to mention his exceptionally well taken headed goal and some exquisite passing. Unfortunately, the midfield ahead of his was totally overrun, but his good form bodes well.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Difficult to assess. He made some very good tackles and was probably Latics busiest player in the second half, but got beaten very easily a few times as well.

Ronnie Stam: 5 — Not good enough at present. Is capable of good attacking play, but is a defensive liability. Remarkable turnaround excepted, Martinez’s attempt to sign John Stones was confirmation that Stam will leave this summer.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — His best game for some time. Would receive an 8 for a brilliant first half during which he played several top-class crosses — one of which Franco Di Santo almost scored from — and was generally composed and effective. Has started all but one league match for Martinez since joining just over a year ago and looked refreshed after being substituted early against Stoke. Disappeared in the second half however. Once again, the opposing manager neutralized Wigan’s main attacking threat by making sure the Chilean was kept busy defensively.

James McCarthy: 5 — His error led to the second goal. McCarthy is difficult to grade — his potential is so huge it is disappointing to see him underperform. If he underperforms, the team does.

James McArthur: 6 — Persevered and showed quick thinking and passing, but wasn’t given the chance to get forward as he did in a fantastic display at Stoke.

Roger Espinoza: 5 — After a game of two halves at Stoke — wobbly and excellent — he struggled in this one. As supporters, we need to be patient as he adapts to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. He was involved, but largely outmuscled and ineffective. Still, a promising signing.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — As has been the case for several months, he was a class above his teammates and the bravest of Wigan’s attacking players. Very close to creating the opening in the first half, he finally got his goal in the second despite a complete lack of support. Setting an example by recently signing a new contract, he celebrated his goal by emphasizing the importance of his club’s shirt.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — Perhaps not everyone’s grade, but the Argentina striker put in a near perfect target man performance, receiving and holding the ball under duress, with very little support. His effort from Beausejour’s cross in the first half was excellent — a goal would have been just reward for a man not only doing the hard work alone up front but constantly chasing back to win the ball for his teammates. He has scored two from four since being deployed in the advanced striker role largely reserved for Arouna Kone this season, a good strike rate better than his teammate, and has been unlucky it’s not been more.

Subs:

Jordi Gomez: Plays well when the team has possession of the ball. Sent on to try and help the team regain it — wasn’t able to do so in this match but didn’t play poorly either.

Callum McManaman: It’s always pleasing to see him come on. Works hard, has skill and is clearly quick though not fast. The jury is still out on him at this level. He played some positive balls forward but his failed lunge in the build-up to Southampton’s second goal gave the winger the confidence to play such a thoughtful cross in. A more experienced player would have stayed stayed with him long enough to make him rush a cross, or would have earned a yellow card for the team stopping him. In his defence, he is being played in a different position every week, for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes at a time. I would love to see him given a starting opportunity behind Di Santo and imagine it would do wonders for his confidence and development. It

Southampton 0 Wigan Athletic 2: Mature Latics win tricky fixture

Saturday’s was a calm and measured performance in which, as time went on, the gulf in experience and class between the two sides appeared to widen.

Had Adam Lallana’s excellent long range strike not been expertly tipped onto the bar by Ali Al-Habsi in the first half, we might be telling a different story. As it was, Wigan limited Southampton to hopeful long range efforts or deep crosses in the first half, before pouncing early in the second and cruising from there on out.

Indeed there was a period of about 4-5 minutes in the second half as Latics pinged the ball around park when it was a like watching Spain — Southampton couldn’t get near them. Statistics will suggest Southampton had the better of the goal attempts, but each of Latics breakaways was incisive and dangerous, while the newly promoted side couldn’t find a way through. The first goal resulted from a cheeky Shaun Maloney flick, which Franco Di Santo raced onto and smashed into the roof of the net. The second was a little more controversial as new-boy Arouna Koné forcefully dispossessed a Southampton defender close to midfield before racing down the pitch to thump home.

The Good:

This performance — as did the final 80 minutes against Chelsea — mirrored the excellent form that kept us up last season. The passing, midfield pressing and levels of concentration were outstanding. The finishes from each striker were as emphatic as any in our Premier League days. New signings Koné and Ramis got another 90 minutes under their belts and performed well.

The Bad:

Not much, really. I felt Victor Moses was missed in the first half and would have been a useful outlet when the team was trying to weather the early storm. Some matches will require players with a bit of dribbling and pace, and the hope is that players like Albert Crusat, Ryo Miyaichi or Callum McManaman can fill that void. But overall we can safely say the squad is strong and full of options, and didn’t miss Vic in this particular fixture.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 8 — Fantastic. Kept Wigan in it, and ahead, with some brilliant reflex saves. Wisely punched away long range efforts in rainy conditions.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7.5 — Very strong and assured performance from the Paraguayan. It was a pleasure to watch all three centre-backs stroking the ball around, their distribution was excellent.

Gary Caldwell: 7.5 — See Alcaraz.

Ivan Ramis: 7.5 — See Caldwell and Alcaraz. A much more assured showing after that difficult debut against Chelsea. Looked the part.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Didn’t get forward quite as much as we’d like, but didn’t let anyone down.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Typically solid, played a delicious chipped cross from a tight angle in the second half that the strikers weren’t ready for.

James McArthur: 7.5 — Made some fantastic tackles in the first half, and enjoyed possession in the second.

James McCarthy: 7.5 — See McArthur. Still hoping to see him appear in more advanced positions from time to time.

Shaun Maloney: 7.5 — Quiet in the first half when the team was on the back foot, but excellent in the second before being withdrawn. As usual, provided the creative spark that put us ahead.

Franco Di Santo: 7.5 — An odd and interesting day for the Argentine. Accustomed to leading the line as target man, he played a wider role for much of the match with Koné ahead. We saw a lot less of him holding the ball up, chasing down defenders, and instead saw him pop up out of nowhere to score a very well-taken goal.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Improved as the match went on. His first touch let him down a few times, but he combined very well with Jordi, before smashing home late in the game. A hugely promising signing.

Subs:

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 — Playing in-the-hole, he caused plenty of trouble in his half an hour on the pitch. A ferocious long range effort and fantastic through ball to Koné stand out.

Jean Beausejour: 7 — Nothing flash, but came on as a left winger and was neat in his play. Will be hoping to push his way back into the lineup, having proved his fitness.

Mauro Boselli: N/A — Only on the pitch for a couple minutes, but it was good to see him back. No doubt he will get a chance to shine against Forest on Tuesday.