West Brom – Wigan Preview: Living in hope

Let’s start with an admission. I don’t have the faintest clue what is going to happen at the Hawthorns tomorrow.

Since Roberto’s tactical switch three matches ago, we’ve seen all shades of Wigan. The best attacking performance of the season came in the Blackburn draw, which would have been a win but for Andre bloody Mariner. The best defensive performance came in the away win at Sunderland. The worst performance full-stop, began the second Mikel Arteta scored Arsenal’s first.

Football has way of clouding one’s judgement. Having most recently watched 65 minutes of capitulation against an Arsenal team at their imperious best, co-starring ourselves at our demoralized worst, it’s hard to view this next fixture with any real optimism. And yet, in the first 25 minutes of the game against that same Arsenal side, we played some of our best football all season. How would I feel if Arsenal had gone 4-0 up and Latics had finished with those excellent 25 minutes of football. Ok, still probably not great, but certainly a bit more optimistic.

If Latics were a craft beer, it would be high gravity stuff. One week I’m blabbering about turning points and the next I can’t see a way out.

The encouraging thing about this Latics side, that separates it from most sides doomed to relegation is that, in more matches than not, we look capable of winning. We haven’t been getting the points yet, obviously, but we didn’t last year either. I had an exchange with a fellow supporter on Twitter earlier today, during which we discussed the lack of goals from our forwards. He felt that Rodallega was on his way and wasn’t too sad to see the back of him. So I asked him who he’d rather see up front, Franco Di Santo or Conor Sammon? His response pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a Wigan supporter these days: “Probably Franco, but it’s hard. Sammon looks like he can score goals but isn’t. Franco doesn’t look like he can, but has.” In recent times, the match we actually won was one of the few (against beatable opposition) that we didn’t deserve to. On the other hand, quite how we didn’t beat Blackburn, Newcastle, Fulham, Norwich, Swansea is beyond me. If we’d managed even two wins out of those, we’d be 14th, the position West Brom is currently in.

So off we go to the Hawthorns, living in hope. Or faith? West Brom away was an exciting fixture last year. It may have even been the one that got Roberto Di Matteo the sack (not beating us has proven to be the final straw for quite a few teams over the years). They are usually fairly open affairs, 2-1s or 2-2s. There is obviously a lot of pressure, in last place, with fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, and a resurgent Stoke away coming up. But did the walloping by Arsenal lift some of it?

Most everyone is fit, to my knowledge. Emmerson Boyce and Antolin Alcaraz will be welcome returnees. Roberto has been answering a lot of questions about Hugo Rodallega, who has still not signed a new contract and has presumably been spending his time begging someone else to sign him. Which in fairness is some task since he is a striker but hasn’t scored since May. But there have been hints in there that suggest the Colombian will make an appearance at some point tomorrow. Lets just all hope it’s not on the left wing. That said, I don’t think Conor Sammon has done anything to deserve losing his place — he did well against Blackburn and Sunderland, starved of service against Arsenal. Nor has Franco Di Santo, for that matter, he remains the only Latics striker to score a goal this season.

I won’t predict a lineup this time, but will instead suggest one (assuming the same tactical system with wingbacks):  Ali Al-Habsi, Figueroa-Alcaraz-Boyce in the middle, Stam and Jones as wingbacks; McArthur & Diame in the centre of midfield; Jordi & Moses, but only if they are allowed to roam, rather than getting stuck on the wing. What’s the point of having wingbacks if it doesn’t allow these two to cut inside; Franco Di Santo up top.

Heart says: West Brom are organized and committed as all Roy Hodgson teams (except Liverpool) tend to be. But they aren’t particularly creative, so our defence holds strong and we run out 2-0 winners. C’mon Latics!!

Mind says: Hard to see a clean sheet here, but we should be good enough to score a goal. 1-1.

Wolves – Wigan Preview: It’s now or never


If the must-win theme in our match previews of late has been getting a bit repetitive, at least its message becomes truer by the week. Wigan has already lost two absolutely-must-win home fixtures, the first with a shambolic display against Bolton, the second a luckless affair against bogey team Fulham. The next three — Wolves away, Blackburn at home, and Sunderland away — are probably as crucial to our survival as any in the season run-in. Not only because they are matches we should expect to emerge from with some points. But because we have to emerge from them with some points. If we don’t, we go into December bottom of the table with fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United in four of the five next games.

Assuming we don’t pick up much in that Christmas deathtrap, I think we need no less than 7 out of the next 9 points. Which means beating Blackburn at home, then beating either Wolves or Sunderland away, and drawing with the other. Given Wolves’ poor form, this may be the better chance for that away win.

The good news is that Latics have a strong record at Molineaux in recent times. We won 2-1 last year and 2-0 the year before. Their form has been poor, losing 7 of the last 9, although they won 3 of the 4 before that, and the most recent two losses were back-to-back exercises against Man City. They did draw at home to Swansea and lose to Newcastle, though, which should give us hope.

The bad news, of course, is that our form is worse. We are now on a staggering eight-match losing streak, although performances have not been as bad as the statistic suggests. With the exception of Man City away, Latics could have (in several cases should have) emerged with points. We live in hope that this will be the performance that delivers reward.

Not too much in the way of player news other than the excellent report on Mo Diame’s ankle injury not being serious. He may even be in contention for a starting spot on Sunday, and thank goodness given the rest of our midfield’s scoring record this season. Gary Caldwell is out suspended, which I daresay has been greeted with enthusiasm by many sections of Latics support. He appears to have lost a yard of pace — not that he was ever the quickest — and equally importantly, presence. I felt he was a good choice for captain when he first arrived at the club, but the defense is severely lacking the authority he was signed to provide, something has gone wrong. Roberto has a few options to replace him — none that steady — playing Steve Gohouri or Adrian Lopez in the centre with Antolin Alcaraz, or moving the ever reliable Emmerson Boyce into centre, drafting in Ronnie Stam at right-back. Or playing Gohouri or Lopez at right back. The main concern should be containing Matt Jarvis, who usually operates down Wolves’ left wing.

If Diame is fit, I would guess a repeat lineup in midfield, with Dave Jones and Ben Watson. Albert Crusat was dangerous against Fulham and should keep his place on the left, while Victor Moses will continue to provoke panic in goalposts country-wide on the right. Hugo Rodallega has been poor — a lifeless, dejected version of the livewire striker with the neon green boots that joined us under Steve Bruce. He remains the most likely player to score, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez opted for Franco Di Santo, who at least looks like he wants to be on the pitch.

As for Wolves, it will probably be a 4-5-1 similar to ours, with Kevin Doyle the frontman. Matt Jarvis will be the main creative threat, while Jamie O’Hara will be energetic in midfield. Cristophe Berra is a bit of a weak link in their defense, though old Birmingham bruiser Roger Johnson always seemed to enjoy a good tussle with Rodallega, I’m sure it will be the same in different colours.

Not much more to say. We’ve played well in the last two outings but haven’t scored. We know we’ll hit the post at least once, but lets hope it bounces in this time.

Heart says: We are a bogey team for Wolves. The extra pace in centre of defense will do us well. We need to win. 1-0.

Mind says: If Wolves score first, we’ve had it. If we do, anything is possible. Realistically, 1-1, but lets hope I’m wrong.

Wigan Athletic – Fulham Preview: Moment of truth for Roberto’s men


Rarely does a game of such importance rear its head this early in a season. Wigan Athletic have now lost seven games in a row. The last time results were that bad, Dave Whelan moved swiftly to relieve Chris Hutchings of his managerial duties. Times have changed, and while there is no chance Roberto will suffer a similar fate, he must be feeling the pressure. This match is as crucial as they come, an absolute cup final.

Thankfully, it’s against a struggling Fulham side who are notoriously poor away from home. They’re in rotten form, sitting only two places above Latics in the league table with only two points more to their name. They too, have only won a single match so far, also against QPR, who have ironically left us both behind and sit comfortably in the dizzying heights of 10th place. While Roberto finally has a full squad to choose from, Martin Jol has a couple injury concerns in defense, with Aaron Hughes missing out and Philippe Senderos doubtful. Simon Davies is also still out with a knee injury.

All this said, Fulham are one of those teams we seem to find tricky. Theoretically, they should be one of those mid-table teams that we might lose to away but expect to beat at home. But our last five meetings at the DW/JJB have ended in draws, and more often than not, Clint Dempsey scores.

In addition to Clint, Latics will have to keep an eye on Bobby Zamora, Andy Johnson, Moussa Dembele, and big-money Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz, who is starting to click after a slow start, scoring a stunning lobbed strike against Everton last week. The Cottagers always hard to break down and play at a high tempo, though Martin Jol’s approach is more continental than both Roy Hodgson’s and Mark Hughes’ were.

Meanwhile, the Wigan camp has been strangely energized by last week’s 1-0 loss to Newcastle. It will be interesting to see if Martinez sticks to the same XI who performed so well, particularly in the first half, or re-introduces Franco Di Santo and James McCarthy to the lineup. Albert Crusat and Dave Jones both performed well at St. James’ and would deserve a repeat start. Di Santo has done nothing wrong, but there is little doubt Rodallega is more likely to score if deployed in the centre-forward role. And James McCarthy has not been himself, but would add a bucket of energy as a second half substitute.

The fixture list over the festive period does not look kind. We have yet to face Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool, which means we must play them twice, and Man City and Spurs each another time. So results must come soon. Seven points from Fulham, Wolves, and Blackburn should put things back on track, but three of them must come tomorrow.

Good luck lads, let this be the turning point we’ve been waiting for.

Heart says: 2-1, Rodallega and Moses to get off the mark for Latics, and who else but Clint Dempsey for the visitors.

Mind says: 1-0, Rodallega.

Wigan Athletic – Newcastle: Morale may be low but strongest XI are finally fit


Under normal circumstances, this match preview would address a history of relative success against Newcastle with measured optimism. I’d point out our last result at St. James Park (2-2 draw that we should have won), and the fact that Newcastle tend to be in that mid-table pack that has been very much accessible to us in our Premier League years; a much bigger club, but one that tends to let its guard down when minnows like us turn up.

But we won’t discuss such things because these are not normal circumstances. While we’ve slumped to six consecutive defeats and half our supporters are calling for our manager’s head, Newcastle have enjoyed their best start to a season in years. They may not have the glamour of the Shearer, Ginola, Asprilla era, but they look something they haven’t in years — solid. They’ve uncharacteristically invested well, and while Alan Pardew is no rocket scientist he has created an organized, talented and competitive side. Getting rid of Andy Carroll and Joey Barton can’t have hurt the atmosphere in the locker room either — or at the very least halved the team’s collective criminal history. Midfield pair Tiote and Cabaye are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, while Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan offer pace and invention from the wings. Demba Ba has started to click up front after a slow start, and Leon Best, despite always looking thoroughly workmanlike, scores more frequently than our strikers do.  The defense has been playing together for several years and you can tell. If anything, the only possible weak link — the player I would try to expose if I were Roberto — is rejuvenated ex-Wiganer Ryan Taylor, who is doing a job at left back. Steve Bruce used him as a left midfielder and it looks like Pardew has caught on as well. He may lack pace, but if you can keep him on the pitch long enough to take a few set pieces, he can win the match for you.

So while it is very possible Ryan will wreak havoc with his corners and free-kicks, there is at least hope that Victor Moses, and possibly even Hugo Rodallega if he’s down that wing, can get past him without too much fancy footwork and cause some problems.

I don’t anticipate any surprises in the lineup, but will breathe a huge sigh of relief if our strongest back four is finally restored, albeit nine games into the season. In midfield, I imagine Roberto will stick with McCarthy for his tackling ability, despite his poor attacking contributions of late, while Rodallega should be on the pitch from the start on the left wing. The bench too, should look strong. Crusat, Maloney and Sammon offer attacking options, while Dave Jones seems to have leapfrogged James McArthur in the pecking order. Hendry Thomas has been frozen out — a shame, because on his day he is the best tackler at the club. One of last weekend’s villains, Steve Gohouri is the most versatile defender available and worth a bench spot, although Van Aanholt really did little wrong in his appearances and could provide defensive cover. And the old Ronnie-Stam-for-Emmerson-Boyce-after-a-crap-first-half is a Martinez favorite, so he’ll probably be there. My best guess for the starting XI: Al-Habsi; Boyce, Caldwell, Alcaraz, Figueroa; Watson, Diame, McCarthy; Rodallega, Moses, Di Santo.

Results have been bad, but performances have largely been decent. The squad is finally fit. There is of course, plenty to lose, but three points in this forgiving league table would see us to mid-table. Unfortunately, no one else has beaten Newcastle this season and it’s a big ask away from home. But nothing much — except the eradication of mindless defensive mistakes — is expected. The stage is set for our boys to bounce back as they’ve done for us so many times in the past.

Heart says: Massive defensive performance, with a Victor Moses goal, 1-0 Latics.

Mind says: Early lead, eventually crumbling to sustained pressure. 2-1, Magpies.