As most anticipated, Aston Villa emerged with the spoils yesterday evening having looked the more likely in a game ultimately decided by a long-range second half James Milner effort.
But it wasn’t as if Latics were played off the park – far from it. They could have even been 1-0 up going into the break had James McCarthy’s fluffed clearance not found the back of his own net. It was a strange incident, as not only was he unchallenged, but he had sufficient time to let it fall to his feet for an easy boot out of play. As it was, McCarthy chose an overhead volley which failed spectacularly, somehow hooking its way past Chris Kirkland.
Wigan would hit back straight away, however, with McCarthy to some extent making up for his discrepancy by winning a free kick in a testing position just outside the Villa penalty area. An excellent delivery nodded in by the advancing Gary Caldwell brought Wigan level within a couple of minutes. Latics were visibly buoyed and exhibited an enhanced brightness, the culmination of which was Hugo Rodallega seeing his shot deflected wide of Friedel’s left hand post.
The sides had earlier traded blows with strikes from Maynor Figueroa and Gabriel Agbonlahor only finding the advertising hoardings behind the goal. The latter would have a frustrating evening characterised by an offside goal with the scores still level, but replays showed the linesman was correct to signal, even if there was less than a foot in it (much closer than, say, Jermain Defoe’s goal a few weeks earlier).
Villa settled down into a rhythm, however, and made Kirkland earn his money on numerous occasions, most notably with the last action of the first half; the keeper advanced off his line to fortuitously clear as Latics’ defence wobbled in the wake of the Villans’ pressure.
Brad Friedel, too, was tested on more than one occasion. Maynor Figueroa forced the Ohioan into a save low and to his right to prove Wigan weren’t just going to let Villa walk all over them like Liverpool had done to Portsmouth the night before.
The second half picked up where the first had left off, with Latics threatening to score but never actually winning any clear cut opportunities. There were some more decent set pieces from the likes of McCarthy and later Victor Moses, but each was expertly headed clear by a rising Richard Dunne, who probably deserved his second half clean sheet at the heart of the Villa defence.
A pernickety Steve Bennett continued to frustrate all concerned by being his usual jobsworth self and making sure every free kick and throw in was taken from exactly the right place. Perhaps he’d watched a half time replay of a throw which he’d earlier allowed Villa to advance ten yards from and decided to discard his ‘nice guy’ persona.
The prevailing memory of his performance is a separate chorus of ironic cheers from both the Latics and Villa faithfuls, plus the odd ‘you’re not fit to referee’ thrown in there for good measure. Still, at least none of his indecisions led to a Villa goal, which can only be a good thing for the Latics.
Enough of the ref, though, because it was once again a slightly dodgy defensive performance combined with the lack of cutting edge in front of goal which saw Wigan go down in this game. They had quite a lot of good fortune with the likes of John Carew somehow failing to find the net, but could not capitalise and grab a vital point due to the lack of any real striker’s instinct.
But it was another failure to clear which saw Villa grab what would become the winning goal. An under-pressure Chris Kirkland punched clear a corner and could not regain his composure in time for a James Milner shot which left him helpless on his goal line. Granted, the Latics defenders should have cleared properly in between the initial punch and the time the ball found itself at Milner’s feet, but a sea of bodies left Kirkland unsighted as the ball found its way over his goal line.
From then on, you sensed Wigan could collapse at any moment. Credit to them, though, because they didn’t, and this game was far from over. Martinez endeavoured to shake things up with the introduction of Paul Scharner and later Jason Scotland, who came on for Emmerson Boyce with five minutes remaining, and both played their part in a good spell of pressure. Once again, however, the Villa defence was equal to Latics’ now five-man attack and their reinforced back line easily cleared or blocked each cross or shot that came the way of their goalmouth.
Latics now have only eight games remaining, but perhaps crucially we play four of the five teams below us in the table between now and the end of the season. There’s also a couple of drawable games in there as well, namely Fulham and Man City away from home. Granted, the latter is far less drawable than last night’s match at the DW, but we’ve already done it once this season. You never know, eh?
Of immediate concern is the Burnley match this weekend, which is a real must-win game if we hold out any hope of surviving this season with our fingernails intact. Hah, like there’s any chance of that, my own fingernails disappeared last week during the Liverpool match. A Latics win and a Portsmouth victory over/draw with Hull will surely tip things in our favour once again, because at this rate we really will need some outside help. That, or an absolute miracle at Stamford Bridge. I can just see the T-shirts now…
Oh yes, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.