Down to the last match again?

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‘Remember that our last game is against Aston Villa at home. It could easily go to the last day of the season.’  These were the words of Roberto Martinez in a recent interview.

Wigan Athletic are not strangers to the concept of surviving on the last day of the season. They have done it twice before.

Goals from Paul Scharner and David Unsworth helped Wigan keep afloat in 2006-2007, when they won their last game at Sheffield United. The win put them level on points with the Blades, but Wigan prevailed by a margin of just one in goal difference. In 2010-2011 it was Hugo Rodallega’s header that gave them a win in their last game at Stoke, although a draw would have sufficed, given the eventual results of other teams at the bottom.

Is it again going to come down to that last match? Or will it be all over before then?

Monday night’s 3-0 defeat for Aston Villa at Old Trafford opens up that possibility. Wigan Athletic – with a  match in hand – have 31 points to Villa’s 34. Reading and QPR remain anchored at the bottom with 24 points. If either club were to win all of its remaining four games – most unlikely, but not impossible –  it could reach 36 points.

The probability is therefore that Reading and QPR will get relegated, together with either Latics or Aston Villa. However, there  remains a possibility  that one of those clubs currently on 37 points – Sunderland, Stoke and Newcastle – could also go down if their last four matches were to produce no yield. Very unlikely, given the squads at their disposal, but stranger things have happened.

Aston Villa’s next game is scheduled for Monday at Sunderland, when they will play knowing the result of Latics’ game with Tottenham on Saturday. If Wigan could manage a positive result against Tottenham it would put a lot of psychological pressure on Villa prior to the Sunderland game. Conversely a defeat on Saturday, followed by a win for Villa,  would open up a 6 point gap, which would be hard to surmount.

Martinez  has talked about the need for Wigan to win three out of their last five matches, not an easy matter when two of those are against teams in the top five. But not impossible.  If Wigan and Villa were to eventually finish level on points it would get down to goal difference. Latics currently hold the advantage at -23, compared with Villa’s -27.

For the moment Wigan are waiting anxiously to get an assessment of the damage done to Antolin Alcaraz’ hamstring, which caused him to limp off at West Ham after only 15 minutes. The return of the big Paraguayan after a long-term groin injury has really helped shore up a leaky defence. A prompt return from Alcaraz could make a big difference to Latics’ chances of survival.

The pressure is on for all the teams in the relegation zone, but especially so for Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa. It is the time of the season where you are looking for a little luck to go your way. Just one lucky goal or one bad refereeing decision could tip the balance.

Given the horrendous injuries Latics have had this season they are due some luck. It’s never too late for a bit of luck to come your way.

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Stoke City v Wigan Athletic: Bogey team again?

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There was a bad joke being bandied about last summer that Pep Guardiola might be going to Stoke – after all he had been talking about taking a year out of football. Joking apart, a match against Stoke should not be taken lightly. Despite their emphasis on physicality they do have players who can play good football. Moreover the crowd noise at the Brittania Stadium places them at the peak of the league’s decibel table.

Wigan Athletic go into this match with relegation breathing down their backs. Is it a good time to go to Stoke? The Potters have had a torrid time recently, with only one win in the last 8 league matches. However, they have lost only a single  home match this season, that one being largely influenced by Jon Walters’ two own goals and penalty miss in the 4-0 loss to Chelsea. The Potters are a level above Wigan in terms of financial outlay and their fans are getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of delivery of their more well paid players. Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones will compete for the centre forward position, alongside leading scorer Walters. Michael Owen scored a goal in the defeat at Swansea last week, after coming off the bench for the last 5 minutes. It was his fifth appearance as a substitute and he has not started a game all season.  Neither Charlie Adam nor Matthew Etherington have been regulars in the team this season. Stoke’s game is built on a physical, but capable defence. They have conceded 27 goals so far this season, compared with Wigan’s 43.  The giant Robert Huth forms a formidable centre of defence with Ryan Shawcross. Huth is 6ft 3in tall, but so are  full backs, Ryan Shotton and Geoff Cameron.

Wigan are likely to approach this match cautiously with a conservative starting lineup containing only one mainline striker, Franco Di Santo. If Stoke’s defence does have a weakness it is probably at full back, but Wigan lack a genuine winger to take advantage, both Ryo Miyaichi and Albert Crusat out with long-term injuries. Following a good display in the cup tie at Macclesfield, Callum McManaman might well be introduced at some stage, but Martinez is likely to start with Jordi Gomez and Shaun Maloney behind lone centre forward, Di Santo. Given the strong possibility of an aerial bombardment by Stoke, Martinez will be looking at having height in his defence. Emmerson Boyce, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa will most likely form the back three, with Ronnie Stam and Jean Beausejour at wing back. However, there remains an option of providing more height in defence by bringing in either Adrian Lopez or Roman Golobart at centre back, with Boyce at right wing back. The two Jimmy Macs will almost certainly anchor the centre of midfield, although Martinez may choose to deploy a  third holding midfielder  there – David Jones or Roger Espinoza – at the expense of Gomez.

Given the fixture list coming up, Wigan will be anxious to get at least a point out of this match. They are going to have to work hard physically if they are to keep Stoke at bay. At the same time, they will also want to stay free of red cards or further injuries, given the key game against Southampton coming up on Saturday. Let’s hope Roberto Martinez surprises us and puts forward a well balanced lineup, resisting the temptation to pass the initiative to Stoke by playing with only one mainline striker.

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Wigan Athletic 2 Stoke City 0: Great escape on track as defenders lead the way

Wigan kept the dream alive with an emphatic victory over Stoke City on Saturday, although results elsewhere conspired to keep them in the bottom three. Once again it was a centre-back who dealt the killer blow, with Antolin Alcaraz providing the kind of assertive finish his more attacking teammates had failed to produce all season. The Paraguayan’s thumping header was just reward for his excellent performances of late.

Stoke’s direct style of play needs no introduction, so it was no surprise that Latics controlled possession early on — and indeed for most of the match. The surprise here was the sloppy defending on display from Pulis’ typically disciplined and tenacious men.

First, Franco Di Santo dispossessed  a sleepy Andy Wilkinson early in the game with a great burst of speed, only to be thwarted by Asmir Begovic in a one-on-one opportunity. Several minutes later, fantastic work from Emmerson Boyce and Victor Moses found Shaun Maloney, who tested the Stoke keeper once again with a firm left-footed volley.

The little playmaker is looking more and more comfortable in the advanced central midfield role, and was named man of the match despite being substituted with a substantial amount of game to be played.

Boyce and Moses were proving a handful for Marc Wilson and Matthew Etherington down Stoke’s left, and the best chance of the half was the result of their pressure. A driven ball into Di Santo was flicked beautifully wide, from which Moses played an intelligent low cross into the path of Jean Beausejour. So often the provider, the Chilean made a mess of the chance, miscuing what should have been a simple tap-in. The Chilean had endured a frustrating first half trying — successfully, but at the expense of a yellow card and ongoing confrontation — to contain Jermaine Pennant. His face — distraught —  at the half-time whistle said it all.

The second half started in much the same vein as the first, with Wigan applying pressure but unable to convert their chances. Dean Whitehead clearly handled in the box (twice, in fact) but no penalty was awarded. Just as the supporters were starting to think it was going to be another of those days, a bit of Maloney trickery freed Beausejour down the left, who played a beautiful first-time cross onto the on-rushing Alcaraz’s head. In a season seriously lacking headed goals, such a fine finish was a sight for sore eyes. You could see what it meant to this committed group of players in their celebrations.

Ben Watson was brought on for Shaun Maloney, who had put in an excellent shift but was tiring. Beausejour had another golden chance when the former Crystal Palace man’s floated cross found him unmarked at the far post — not an easy finish but a fantastic opportunity nonetheless. Stoke brought on Ricardo Fuller and Cameron Jerome, and Wilson Palacios minutes later, but only managed to muster a half chance well-cleared by James MacArthur. Jordi Gomez and Conor Sammon were both introduced to keep possession and run around energetically, respectively — but it was Victor Moses who would seal the three points in injury time, catching Andy Wilkinson dozing once again, nipping past the keeper, and tapping into the empty net.

The Good:

This was almost the perfect performance. Everyone on the pitch worked their socks off, played some good football, and deserved three points. Maloney has been a revelation since coming into the side with his inventive runs and passing — though possibly less silky on the ball, he is much more direct than Jordi Gomez. Antolin Alcaraz, like Gary Caldwell, has been excellent of late and took his goal brilliantly. The three centre-backs were excellent in coping with Stoke’s aerial threat throughout and deserved their clean sheet. The James’ in midfield were once again dominant. Victor Moses not only scored but showed he can deliver the intelligent killer pass, when he pulls his head up. Boyce and Beausejour had difficult defensive tasks but were involved — even if their finishing let them down — in attacking play. Full marks for Roberto, things have been coming together for some time now, but save the poor finishing, this was a near-flawless performance.

The Bad: 

It certainly appears that Wolves are doomed to relegation. But two other direct rivals, Bolton and QPR, achieved vital wins. QPR have now beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in their last two games and are growing in belief. They have some quality players. Bolton have enjoyed a boost in the last few weeks. So we remain in the bottom three. Margins are incredibly tight. Three difficult fixtures loom against Chelsea, Man United, and Arsenal.

Conclusions:

Chelsea are enjoying a good spell of form under caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo, but have a congested fixture list. Any points at Stamford Bridge would be a minor miracle if you look at the squads and statistical odds, but our form is good, the belief is there, and we should have a go at them. Manchester United remain the only team we have never managed a point from in the league, but it has been very close a few times at the DW. Last season, Wayne Rooney should have been sent off for elbowing James McCarthy in the face. He wasn’t, of course, but if fair refereeing were to prevail, we’d have a chance. Arsenal away tends to be a nightmare for us, but we must see what happens in those first two — and with results elsewhere — before attaching too much importance to it. The final stretch offers promise:  Newcastle home, Fulham away, Blackburn away, Wolves home. Lets hope the good form continues and we’re still in striking distance after these brutal next three fixtures. Crucial to our chances is that we do not lose our heads if things are going poorly in the next three fixtures — we can’t afford three-match suspensions for any key players.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 — Only touched the ball once or twice. Got an important fist to the ball early in the first half, but that was about it.

Antolin Alcaraz: 9 — Excellent defensively, fantastically taken goal.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Accomplished performance marking Peter Crouch, who is at least a full head taller than him.

Maynor Figueroa: 8 — Did well. Perhaps he’ll be the next to pop up with a striker’s finish?

Emmerson Boyce: 7 — Involved in Wigan’s best first half moves, linking up well with Victor Moses. Had a good chance in the first half but took a bad touch. That said, panicked a clearance that Jonathan Walters first-timed into the side-netting.

Jean Beausejour: 7.5 — Interesting performance by the Chilean, who struggled at times with Jermaine Pennant and had to resort to a bit of professional fouling. But he stuck with him, nullified his threat, and still managed to get in goalscoring positions twice and provide the match-winning cross.

James McArthur: 8 — Did not put a foot wrong. Cleared Stoke’s only real chance in the second half. Superb tackling and closing down.

James McCarthy: 8 — One still wishes he would show a bit more of his attacking flair, but it shouldn’t take away from the strong, pacey and committed shifts he is putting in.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Always looking to create openings with the ball at his feet or a cheeky through ball, he has revitalized the side.

Victor Moses: 8.5 — Took his goal very well, and should have had at least one assist to his name. It speaks to his outstanding fitness levels that he was able to chase the ball down on the midfield line, sprint towards goal, and finish as coolly as he did — all in injury time.

Franco Di Santo: 7 — What a shame he couldn’t tuck away his chance. Once again, you can’t fault the lad for effort, or skill in his build-up play.

Subs:

Ben Watson: 6.5 — He was brought on to help the team regain and keep possession and largely, it worked. Almost made a mess of a clearance when Stoke attacked late in the second half.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Brought on in a defensive move to keep possession, but was played out on the right wing where he barely saw the ball. Did have the chance to make one deeply satisfying tackle though.

Conor Sammon: n/a — Can’t remember him touching the ball, but I was glad to see him come on for the last few minutes to help the cause with his workrate.

STOKE CITY – WIGAN ATHLETIC PREVIEW: GOOD FOOTBALL OR ROUTE ONE?

Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.

Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.

So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.

Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.

So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.

For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.