Dream alive as Wigan edge Hawthorns thriller

macca

A wounded and embattled Wigan Athletic side somewhat miraculously emerged with three points to keep their dream of a survival and FA Cup double very much alive. Despite fielding a makeshift defence, going behind twice, and suffering yet another injury to an important first team player, Wigan pulled three exquisite finishes out of the hat and then held on to the 3-2 result for dear life.

Results elsewhere saw Aston Villa defeat Norwich, who may well become Wigan’s chief relegation rival with only a three-point lead and games against West Brom and Manchester City to follow. Newcastle’s draw at West Ham keeps them two points ahead with games against QPR and Arsenal. A victory for Wigan against Swansea on Tuesday would really shake up the table, potentially even meaning a draw on the last day of the season against Villa could be enough for both sides to survive.

Back at the Hawthorns, a nervy first half exposed Wigan’s defensive frailties with West Brom’s speedy front trio of Shane Long, Romelu Lukaku and Markus Rosenborg causing all sorts of problems. Employing Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam as orthodox full-backs was always likely to heap pressure on the central pairing of Paul Scharner and Emmerson Boyce, but with Ben Watson making his first appearance since breaking his leg back in 2012, no one was breathing easily. The opening goal stemmed from a loss of possession in midfield by Scharner. Lukaku’s excellent through pass caught the Austrian out of position, and Rosenborg sped past Watson before squaring for Long to score.

Wigan’s response was encouraging. Shaun Maloney won a free-kick on the edge of the box and shot narrowly wide, before being fouled in the build-up to the first equalizer. Referee Lee Probert thankfully played the advantage allowing Beausejour to bend a cross in from the left for Arouna Koné to expertly finish.

The Latics started the second half energetically but were soon pegged back after the unmarked Gareth McAuley buried a towering header from a corner. Minutes passed before Roberto Martinez made an influential double substitution, replacing the defensively poor Stam with Roman Golobart and midfielder Jordi Gomez with James McArthur, whose first touch was a spectacular goal. A lovely bit of skill and another lovely left-footed cross — this time by Maloney — was curled to the far post past West Brom keeper Ben Foster, where McArthur was waiting to finish with a diving header.

With the excellent traveling support now in full voice, Wigan went in search of the three points but were still unable to boss the midfield. Minutes slipped away and West Brom threatened to take the lead a third time before Maloney — the team’s heartbeat — created another moment of magic. Receiving the ball from Roger Espinoza — on for the injured Beausejour at left-back — the Scot left two defenders for dead with a stepover and a shimmy before slipping the ball into the path of Callum McManaman who made no mistake.

An incredibly nervy fifteen minutes ensued, but Wigan held on for three points of gold.

The Good:

Not many teams beat West Brom at The Hawthorns, and you can see why. Wigan had very little in the way of chances but scored three excellent goals. West Brom went close on a number of occasions. This was arguably the trickiest of the three “winnable” fixtures left in Wigan’s season, and they got the job done.

Shaun Maloney, Wigan’s little magician, did it again. The finishes were excellent, but it was the skill he mustered to create the chances when no one else could that won Latics the game.

The Bad:

Beausejour’s injury is another cruel blow after losing the other left-sided defender on the books, Maynor Figueroa, a week earlier. The Honduran Espinoza looks set to play an important role in what remains of the season, unless a central defender is pushed wide.

Wigan cannot keep shipping two goals a game and expect to win. Thankfully, the finishing was of the highest order today. All fingers will be crossed for an Antolin Alcaraz return against Swansea.

Player Ratings:

Joel Robles: 7 — Showed safe hands and dealt with crosses with more authority than previous matches. Made two or three very good saves.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Deserves huge credit leading a patchwork defence, made several crucial blocks.

Paul Scharner: 6 — Worked his socks off, covered lots of ground, and you can see what it meant to him. But he did make some mistakes, one of which proved costly.

Ronnie Stam: 5 — Good in attack, bad in defence.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Beautiful cross for the goal. Did better than Stam but struggles in one-on-ones with faster players. Still, will be sorely missed.

Ben Watson: 6 — Assumed the defensive midfielder slash centre-back role that James McCarthy played against Spurs. Did well, given his lengthy absence, but attempted far too many cross-pitch Hollywood passes for a man who hadn’t played a competitive match for five months. Still, some good interceptions and tackling and a welcome return.

James McCarthy: 7 — Worked very hard and did a lot of important tackling but gave the ball away a few times and couldn’t control the midfield as he so often does. Headed off the line in the last minute to save the three points.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Not a major contributor, substituted for James McArthur.

Shaun Maloney: 8 — Wigan’s best player. Although limited to a wing role for most of the match, he created two of the goals single-handedly and was involved in the build-up of the other. Relieved the pressure on his defence by drawing fouls in crucial moments.

Callum McManaman: 7 — Very positive. Unlucky with his finishing until he got the winner. Took it very well.

Arouna Koné: 7 — Fantastic finish from a quality centre-forward who really looks at home at Wigan.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Fantastic finish and good midfield shift. Surely he will start the next match?

Roman Golobart: 6 — Very nervy upon introduction. Earned a yellow card with a crude lunge, put his keeper under pressure with an over-hit backpass, but his physical presence and Boyce’s help at right-back somewhat stabilized the defence.

Roger Espinoza: 6 — Looked uncomfortable at left-back but did a job for the team.

Moses missed as Latics run out of ideas

The Wigan Athletic revival party was put on hold by an exceptionally well organized and opportunistic West Brom side on Saturday. While Roberto Martinez’s choice of “frustrating” was more than apt, the biggest takeaway appears to be that with Shaun Maloney’s impact reduced by a niggling ankle injury (that has forced him out of the Scotland squad this week), Latics sorely missed a player with the ability to unlock a defence — something Victor Moses used to do with some regularity last season.

In fact, the only memorable moment of dribbling skill resulted in Latics’ best chance of an equaliser, when Franco Di Santo skinned his man down the left hand side before Maloney blazed over. Neither Jean Beausejour nor Ronnie Stam, whose return was pleasing, possess the pace to beat their man for speed. West Brom’s centre halves had a field day clearing hopeful crosses from the box. Ben Watson’s long range strikes were the only other real threat Wigan could muster.

The Good: 

Before West Brom scored, Latics had looked dominant and fluid, if not incisive. Ben Watson was playing some beautiful stuff and was unlucky with his long range strikes. The goal was a good response. Ali Al-Habsi was fantastic. Ronnie Stam was an immediate improvement in the attacking third when he came on, although his crosses were not sharp.

The Bad: 

A lack of imagination on this display. West Brom defended in numbers and Latics could not find a way through. It would have been nice to see Di Santo on the ball more frequently, but he didn’t seem to drop deep enough to get on it. With the amount of possession around the box and Shaun Maloney struggling, Jordi Gomez might have been an option earlier in the game. It also appeared to be an ideal opportunity to give Mauro Boselli a runout, as the attacks appeared to be based on hopeful crosses into the box. He came on very late. Also a shame Ryo Miyaichi and his pace were unavailable through injury.

Conclusions: 

No cause for panic, but this match was crying out for a player willing to run at the WBA defence and force errors. It will go down as a missed opportunity. Players like Jean Beausejour and Shaun Maloney, usually excellent, have failed to convert scoring opportunities in recent matches. Ronnie Stam’s introduction suggested Emmerson Boyce’s attacking play has been acknowledged as sub-standard in recent outings.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 9 — Despite hurting his shoulder in the warm-up, he was at his very best. One save from Romelu Lukaku in the second half stands out. Top class.

Ivan Ramis: 6 — No errors, but a bit of a wobbly performance after several excellent ones.

Gary Caldwell: 5 — Unlucky with his own goal, but was run ragged by Shane Long and eventually substituted.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 – Almost gave away a goal in the first half with some casual defending. Otherwise, not a bad match.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 — Offered little in attack. Better when dropped to the back three.

Jean Beausejour: 6 — Nice ball for Koné’s goal. Had a good first half, but his worst second half since joining the club with misplaced passes and a spurned opportunity.

James McCarthy: 7 — Strong in midfield, wish he had been able to get forward more often.

Ben Watson: 8 — Probably the best outfield performance, he was the most positive attempting through balls and shots. Gave the ball away frustratingly a few times, but if anyone deserved a goal it was him.

Shaun Maloney: 6 — Quietest performance in a while. West Brom identified him as the main man and marked him heavily, but he was also apparently carrying an injury.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Also quiet. Only really got on the ball to good effect once or twice. No shots or goal attempts.

Arouna Koné: 6.5 — Did well to stay onside for his goal. Held the ball up well but had little space to operate in, and not much service either.

Subs:

Ronnie Stam: Saw a lot of the ball and put several crosses in, all well defended. A welcome return.

Jordi Gomez: Not enough time to make an impact.

Mauro Boselli: Came on for the last 8 or so minutes, by which point Latics had lost the bulk of possession and were restricted to hopeful crosses — none of which reached him.

Latics out to prove relegation battles are behind them

Following an exceptional result at White Hart Lane and convincing home success against West Ham before it, Wigan Athletic are starting to answer the question many of us spent the summer pondering: can the performance levels from our season-saving run of form be matched when the pressure is off?

Back in April and May, the intensity and tenacity of Latics’ defensive play at times seemed superhuman. The harrying, chasing down, selflessness — surely this was an attitude borne of need, the will to survive and fight another day. Over the summer, doubt intensified. Without that full commitment, would Wigan lose its edge?

Early season results did little to clear things up. A couple weeks ago, after some strong performances and one or two rotten ones, the general consensus was that a lack of sharpness at the decisive ends of the pitch were costing the club points. Wigan was stuck in the all-too-familiar bottom quarter of the table. Forward to present, and Roberto is a win away from the top half. What changed?

Despite a history of starting slowly at home in the Martinez era, I would argue that home wins are catalytic to the club’s good form. The players enjoy an unusually close relationship with the support, and the good feeling brought after a convincing win breathes not only confidence but urgency into the team. If anything, the last minute consolation goal by James Tomkins strengthened that resolve. A reminder that whilst the victory was more-than-warranted, a lead is a fragile thing that you have to fight to protect.

It was with this urgency that Wigan approached the Spurs match. All for one, and one for all. Ben Watson, eventually the match winner, put in a defensive shift we didn’t know he was able to. There was unity all over the park. Finesse in attack, real steel in defence. It was on par with the wins over Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool last season. And one notch below the 4-0 hammering of Newcastle, only due to missed chances to increase the scoreline.

And so what would have been viewed as more of a must-win home tie against West Brom when fixtures were announced, has become a real opportunity. Instead of the trepidation that accompanies these home matches we “should” win, there is real excitement that Wigan have rekindled the form that gave us so much joy earlier this year — and may deliver us three wins in a row and a place in the top half of the table.

But West Brom are not to be underestimated. In fact, they took advantage Wigan’s good work against Spurs and leapfrogged the London side into fifth place when no one was looking. Steve Clarke appears to be doing terrific work with an odd group of players, who seem capable of pulling off big results but never really look all that special. They’ve had two fewer days of rest, but will hardly have needed them after beating Southampton very comfortably indeed. The match should find two sides in decent form with few injuries to complain of — Latics’ main doubt is James McArthur, but Ben Watson will have earned a recall if there is any doubt about the Scot’s fitness.

There is always the possibility of a flat start, an unlucky deflected goal, a red card or an injury. But if Wigan can match the performance levels of Spurs and West Ham, it will put any lingering doubts to rest. Roberto has brought this club, beyond reasonable doubt, up a full level since this time last season. Relegation battlers simply can’t play the sort of football his team is capable of.

Wigan Athletic 1 WBA 1: Mauro who? Latics robbed

A terrific team display once again ended in frustration for Wigan Athletic, as their 21 shots — 3 of which hit the post — amounted to just one goal, the same as the rather fortunate West Brom. Roberto’s team is surely playing the best football a team in its league position has ever played, and yet it also appears to be the worst at finishing opportunities in all four professional leagues.

With apologies for the late match report, these extra few days of reflection have brought me a frustrating conclusion. We already have a player who could have made the difference — Mauro Boselli. At risk of incurring the wrath of Cockney Latic, this would have been the type of game that would have seen the Argentine thrive.

During Boselli’s frustrating time at the club, the club’s attacking strategy was quite different. Wingers played on opposite sides, there were no wingbacks. N’Zogbia attacked on the right, Rodallega on the left, both cut in to shoot more often than cross the ball to the centre-forward. The role of the centre-forward in that case was that of a target man, someone to hold the ball and lay it off to the skillful, goal-scoring wingers. A role more suited to someone with the traits of say, Franco Di Santo. Boselli — a forward’s opposite of Di Santo, that is, a poacher — was largely starved of service in that team.

If Wigan had 21 shots the other day there must have been at least 30 crosses into the box, many of which were top quality deliveries. Jean Beausejour was simply outstanding — a wonderful performance full of energy, invention and the full range of crossing — curled, lofted, driven, measured. Victor Moses was dangerous in flashes and Emmerson Boyce was as involved as anyone on the pitch, bombing up and down the right flank. Even Maynor Figueroa found the space to get forward from his centre-half position to deliver a couple tantalizing balls into the box. For all Di Santo’s effort and mobile build-up play, all the Latics needed in this game was a finisher. Is there a recall clause in Boselli’s loan?

Probably not, but it wouldn’t happen anyway. Hugo Rodallega is apparently fit to play Liverpool this weekend.

But back to the match. Di Santo had a hat-trick of chances in the first 10 minutes. Emmerson Boyce and James McCarthy, with a close-range header and top-of-the-box screamer respectively, were denied by the crossbar. Ben Foster was enjoying the game of his life. Shaun Maloney, in for Gomez in the attacking midfield role, was clearly not match fit but still a big improvement on the Spaniard’s recent performances. He has imagination, the vision to break down a defense with a pass or stepover. James McCarthy and James McArthur dominated midfield, as has become their custom — it’s hard to imagine a gutsier pair in there; honest, tough, and cultured with their passing. The defense looked good.

Latics finally got their reward in the second half in the scrappiest of ways. Victor Moses’ dangerous cross hit a West Brom defender and was bundled over the line by James McArthur. It’s not often that a Wigan supporter breathes easy, but West Brom had shown so little that I admit there were a couple minutes during which I believed we could go on and win this one comfortably. A foolish thought, as minutes later Paul Scharner equalized from an unmarked header, from a corner.

At one point, Yusuf Mulumbu, frustrated at James McArthur’s relentless harrying, should have been sent off for retaliation when he pushed the Wigan midfielder right in front of the referee. If McArthur had gone to ground, it would have been red. If it had been McArthur and not Mulumbu who did it, it’s possible it would have been red too.

Mohamed Diame came on and again was guilty of missing the best chance of the match after Beausejour yet again did the hard part, laying a low cross into his path. Albert Crusat hit the post yet again in the dying moments, but it wasn’t to be.

In mid-week news, Queen’s Park Rangers somehow beat Liverpool 3-2 and Blackburn Rovers have gone three points higher after beating Sunderland. Grim news indeed.

The Good:

The team performance. Roberto’s game plan. They did everything they could. Real urgency, real effort and everyone played very well, except Di Santo — who was not bad, but also didn’t score.

The Bad:

Switching off for one crucial set play to allow Scharner to equalize against the run of play. The finishing. The fixture list and the league table.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 6 — Not to blame for the goal. Didn’t have much to do.

Antolin Alcaraz: 7 — Was excellent but looked like he should have been marking Scharner for the goal.

Gary Caldwell: 8 — Another good performance from the Scot, who has been very impressive of late.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 — Solid at the back and delivered one or two great crosses. Should not be allowed to take free-kicks though. Specially when Shaun Maloney is the other option.

Emmerson Boyce: 8 — Bombed up and down, was as involved as anyone, almost scored. But isn’t a natural finisher.

Jean Beausejour: 10 — The Chilean gets the first 10/10 on this website. He didn’t put a foot wrong. His crosses would have resulted in a hat-trick for a proven Premier League goalscorer. Or Grant Holt.

James McCarthy: 8 — The build-up to his shot that hit the crossbar typifies him. Excellent, strong tackle to win the ball, on his feet in a flash, beautiful technique in the shot. But we need him to be near the box more frequently.

James McArthur: 8 — Another good shift. Misplaced the ball a few times in the first half, but made up for it with the sheer number of yards he covered, not least when scoring the goal.

Shaun Maloney: 7 — Showed flashes of what he is capable of, but this was his first start for the club in a long time, and wasn’t totally sharp. Still, he will play a big part in the run in.

Victor Moses: 7 — Quiet in the first half but created the goal with a nice piece of skill.

Franco Di Santo: 6 — Everything but the goals.

Subs:

Callum McManaman: 5 — Had his chance to be a hero, but nerves and enthusiasm got the better of him. Spurned a glorious chance when caught frozen in the box, and then over eagerness saw him shoot into the stands. Still not ready, on this showing.

Mo Diame: 6 — As against Norwich, was dangerous when he came on but missed the best chance of the match.

Albert Crusat: 7 — Only on the pitch a few minutes but combined well with Jean Beausejour and hit the post.

Wigan Athletic vs. West Bromich Albion: Last chance saloon at the DW


Let us know if these previews are starting to become a bit ridiculous with their constant references to must-win fixtures, but I think it’s time to face reality — barring any major miracles against the big boys, if we lose to West Brom this weekend it’s game over. A draw would be pretty bad news too. Three points would give us a chance.

The gloom is founded in our ensuing fixtures, which involve Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal — three of them away — followed by in-form, new-look Fulham (also away), and tricky though beatable Newcastle. The only saving grace, if survival is still mathematically attainable by then, is that the final two matches of the season are against direct rivals Blackburn and Wolves.

When we wrote our survival analysis several weeks ago, we were banking on a real point return from the recent fixtures against Villa, Swansea and Norwich. We should have emerged with six points from those nine, and instead got two.

The interesting thing is that I would argue that recent performances — excluding the Swansea match when key players were jetlagged or benched — have been on par with those that saved us in the run-in last year. The defense has pulled together as it did last year, with Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz hitting form over the last 5-6 matches, and the Jimmy Macs strong in midfield. The desire is there.

The difference of course, is in the goals. We don’t have Charles N’Zogbia. Hugo Rodallega was bright enough against Norwich but was a substitute for most of the season due to his clear desire to be somewhere else. Victor Moses took his goal very well against Norwich, as he did the last time we met West Brom — but those were both exceptions to his generally sub-par finishing. Mo Diame could have won the game for us twice last Saturday but fluffed his lines. It’s tragic to watch.

I’m just not sure what to think about this one. West Brom have been in decent form and will be out for revenge after Latics came from behind to beat them at The Hawthorns not too long ago, but really ought to be beaten at home. Except of course, for our poor home form.

From a selection perspective, there is good news. Influential defender Jonas Olsson is suspended, and Peter Odemwingie is apparently doubtful. Just about everyone is fit for us, the most inspirational of whom could be Shaun Maloney, who made such an impact with his incisive passing and sharp footwork when replacing Jordi Gomez against Norwich. What might the season have looked like if he had been fit and involved all along? I’ve often felt that our attacking problems are in equal parts poor finishing and lack of service. The strikers live on scraps. Maloney, in his 30-odd minutes on the pitch, provided more defense-splitting passes than Jordi has all season.

Surely this will be the match Mohamed Diame reclaims his starting berth in midfield. He was by far the best outfield player in a Wigan shirt before leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, but has not started a match since. One suspects that he has taken a leaf out of Rodallega’s book and focused his attention on a summer move rather than the Robin Park training ground during these winter months. But he’s still the best we have in midfield, and should be on the pitch.

Another of the real revelations of the season, Ronnie Stam, must be wondering what he’s done wrong. Given the opportunity to play in his  natural position at wing-back, the Dutchman excelled until the return to fitness of Emmerson Boyce. He is clearly not as good a defender at Boyce, but a much better attacker. Home fixtures against mid-table or lower teams like WBA present reasonable opportunities to take attacking risks. Beausejour and Stam have yet to feature in the same lineup, which is an absolute crime for a team struggling to score goals.

Last but not least, there’s Callum McManaman, who has barely featured since his return from a successful loan spell at Blackburn. He scored in his only start, the embarrassing loss at Swindon. Fellow Amigos’ writer Jakarta Jack suggested that McManaman’s performances for the reserves in the striker role should see him replace Rodallega. We could certainly use someone with some confidence in front of goal, someone who has scored some goals this season and doesn’t hesitate at the crucial moment. With reports this morning suggesting that the Colombian is doubtful, it could be an opportunity. Although Di Santo is likely to start ahead of him should those reports be true.

Keep an eye out for:

Shaun Maloney, if he plays. He was dynamite when he came on against Norwich. If he’s fit enough to start, fantastic. If not, I would hope for a McArthur-McCarthy-Diame midfield, with Maloney on in the 2nd half as an impact sub. Unfortunately, Jordi Gomez has produced too little to to retain his place in the starting lineup, despite a string of games over the festive period that suggested he had finally found his feet in a Wigan shirt.

Prediction:

My heart says we are finally going to break the jinx and win this one. My brain, or the tormented bundle of nerves and anxiety that is left of it, reserves comment.