“Oh, good,” I thought, “Arsenal are being so nice as to play the bungling Sol Campbell in the centre of defence to allow us a sniff of a chance.” It was only that, though, a thin sliver of light peering over the top of the mountain you could just about make out if you squinted.
In reality, though this was a far from full strength Arsenal team, I think most if not all present at the DW Stadium fully expected The Gooners to paste the ailing Latics into a fine pulp which they would then use to plaster ten foot posters of Arsene Wenger all around the borough. Probably not of him doing his now trademark arm waving motion, however, because that makes him look too much like a chicken.
This was the same team that struggled to hit the target against Portsmouth, with the notable exceptions of Moreno back in for Scotland and, most tellingly, Ben Watson returning to the first team in place of the sulking Paul Scharner. After the antics of Wednesday, speculation over his future at the club has been rife, with reports of a bust-up with Martinez dominating the back pages of local papers and garnering some column inches in certain national ones as well.
Thus, it wasn’t really a surprise to see Scharner omitted from the teamsheet. His replacement, called back from a loan spell at West Brom at short notice, had been gifted a chance to prove to Roberto he has a role to perform in this Latics side.
On a personal level, I don’t see what Watson did wrong to deserve being hauled out to Championship clubs for the most part of this season, a viewpoint somewhat justified by his welcome presence in the centre of midfield yesterday. He was many peoples’ man of the match, in fact, and no doubt will now be above Scharner in the pecking order not only for that centre-of-the-park controlling role but the half time Jaffa Cakes as well.
As for the big Austrian’s future, who knows. I would say it isn’t looking likely he’ll renew his contract when it expires at the end of the season, not at this rate anyway. Perhaps the aforementioned West Brom beckons, or maybe even retirement?
That’s a talking point for another day, however, especially since the events of Sunday afternoon far outshadowed any negativity built up in the past week. Many people, myself included, were so incredibly dejected by Wigan’s inability to put away what was essentially a Championship reserve team we wouldn’t have ever foreseen the unprecedented scenes that unfolded late in the game at the Dee Dubya yesterday. And what a magical fifteen minutes they were, too.
Latics began brightly, dominating the first twenty minutes possession-wise, but emerged with only a couple of shots on goal to show for it. The closest they came was via a Ben Watson corner, which somehow evaded each and every defender and, most crucially, stand-in keeper Lukasz Fabianski. Make a note of this for later on. Had Rodallega been a might quicker off the mark at the back post, he may well have placed the ball into the opposition net to give Wigan the perfect start. Promising, but no proverbial stogie.
Shortly after, Arsenal earned themselves a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, but only succeeded in finding the waiting arms of Chris Kirkland with a line of three attackers just outside the six yard box tantalisingly close to an easy chance.
This opportunity would spark a spell of Arsenal pressure and two excellent chances for Theo Walcott, perhaps the visitors’ best player on the afternoon. Unfortunately for Latics, he would take his second opportunity with just five minutes left to the break, capitalising on a piece of lax defending from Figueroa and Gohouri.
It’s fair to say Walcott was the difference between the two teams going into half time, not only goal-wise but the way he caused the Wigan defence so many problems on more than three occasions. After this, however, he didn’t really have the chance to show the same cutting edge he exhibited in the first period. This was because Arsenal were 2-0 up just five minutes into the second half thanks to a Mikael Silvestre header — we’ll gloss over the defending that could well be to blame for this — and Wenger had switched to a more laid back, defensive strategy to see out the remaining forty minutes or so.
As was to be proved, however, it was a dangerous game to play. Despite being two goals down, you couldn’t ever say Wigan were completely out of it with so much time left to play and especially considering the positive intent they’d exhibited just prior to the second goal hitting the back of Kirkland’s net. A nice passing movement led to a penalty appeal for a tug back on Ben Watson, but Referee Lee Mason was hardly going to give a foul for something so weak, especially not to little Wigan. Replays showed that there was indeed contact, but Watson went down a bit easily for the officials’ liking.
Besides, Arsenal had a penalty appeal of their own turned down in the first half, so it would be kind of hypocritical, nay foolish, for any referee worth his salt to find in favour of the smaller team and risk the wrath of the Big Four. I would say neither incident was a penalty anyway, though that’s with the benefit of hindsight and a television replay, but you can bet your life I was seething at the time.
No matter, though, because just a minute later Silvestre had Arsenal’s second and, you would think, decisive goal. But as the game progressed, Wigan came more into things, perhaps sparked by the introduction of Victor Moses for Marcelo Moreno; Rodallega took up a more central role with the midfielders joining in attacks as needed. Which, as it turned out, was pretty much all of the last twenty minutes, because Arsenal didn’t quite look the attacking team they had been in the first stanza.
With Wigan now pushing for what could be an important goal — remember, things could still come down to goal difference, especially with Chelsea to come on the final day of the season — the crowd sensed that if the home side could snatch one goal back, the last ten minutes would be interesting. As it happened, things were extremely interesting, at least if you’re a Wigan supporter.
After an enterprising run from Moses, Ben Watson somehow found the ball at his feet and slotted it nicely past two Arsenal defenders on 79 minutes. Game on again, and Arsene Wenger responded by bringing the more defensive-minded Emmanual Eboue on in place of Theo Walcott, who, just like most of the Arsenal team, hadn’t threatened as much as he did in the first half.
Latics continued to press, but time was beginning to run out. On 88 minutes, with the ball bouncing about in the Arsenal penalty area, Hugo Rodallega almost found himself with the goal at his mercy, but an excellent saving header from Diaby prevented the ball from falling nicely at the Colombian’s feet. This would surely have been an equaliser, and one nobody would have anticipated just ten minutes earlier. The Gunners defence was now looking decidedly shaky under some actual goalmouth pressure, and their win was far from assured, even with but minutes left to play.
Wigan would not have to worry for much longer, however. Very soon after, following a Charles N’Zogbia corner, Titus Bramble seemed to head a fumbled Fabianski catch over the goal line. There was a brief moment of tension before the referee signalled the ball had indeed crossed the line, and madness ensued.
With just one minute left to play, Latics were back on level terms and, unbelievably, searching for a winner. They couldn’t, could they? Well, minds were cast back to the magnificent victories over Liverpool and Chelsea at the DW earlier in the season, and with the crowd now spurring Wigan forward, it certainly wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
I’m sure 75% of the stadium would have more than settled for a point at that stage, but incredibly, it wasn’t over just yet. As the fourth official raised his board to indicate an additional four minutes of injury time, Maynor Figueroa launched another long, booming ball upfield, finding Hugo Rodallega, who laid a short pass to N’Zogbia. The Frenchman took advantage of some shellshocked Arsenal defending to curl a shot in off Fabianski’s right hand post for a glorious, glorious goal in the 91st minute of the game.
Cue a ten-man pile on from the Latics players and unprecedented celebrations at the DW. The Chelsea and Liverpool wins were special, but in my opinion, the moment the ball hit the net for Wigan’s third far outshines the rapturous scenes at the final whistle in both those games and, dare I say it, the moment Latics were promoted to the Premiership.
Arsenal had absolutely no answer, and with just three minutes of stoppages to play the result was all but sealed. The remaining time verily flew by as all the tension that had built up in the four weeks since the Burnley game exploded in a cacophony of noise the likes of which may never be heard again this side of the River Dougie. Martinez made a second substitution to waste a bit of time, but with the final whistle imminent it wasn’t entirely necessary.
Yes, it was an understrength Gunners side still reeling from the defeat of Tottenham in midweek, but the history books will only record that Little Wigan beat Arsenal 3-2. Will it be enough to keep us up? Probably, but I think we’d best leave those worries for another day, because I get the feeling it’ll be a long time before this one sinks in.