Wigan 1-1 Liverpool: Progress, dare I say it?

Hugo Rodallega outside Rigaletto's

Another day at the office, another goal for Hugo Rodallega

We’d had our warmups in the form of Hartlepool, Preston and Swansea in the Carling Cup, but tonight saw Latics’ first midweek Premier League game of the 2010 season. It was a biggie, too, and no matter how much we tried to put it out of our minds (“bloomin’ great, another hammering,” mutter), it always loomed large on the horizon. I mean, it’s Liverpool, how could it not be huge?

Of the so-called ‘Big Four’, Liverpool is the team we’ve had most success against since our promotion to England’s top flight in 2005. More often than not, this matchup has yielded some intriguing and often exciting encounters – one need look no further than this time three years ago when the spectacular Amr Zaki almost propelled Wigan to new heights at Anfield. I wonder what happened to that bloke?

And of course, who could forget our win at the DW last season, a moment that will live long in any Latic’s memory? Hugo Rodallega might not be “a patch on” Harry Lyon, but he helped us beat the five-time European champions (not forgetting the small matter of a UEFA Cup), and that’s definitely something to be proud of. Maybe in ten years’ time we’ll be seeing websites dedicated to Rodders, no doubt with a plethora of Only Fools and Horses puns.

As expected, the visitors came at Latics from the word go, eager to gain the initiative. That they did on 7 minutes, courtesy the in-form Fernando ‘Nando’ Torres — his first away goal in the Prem for more than six months — from the edge of Al Habsi’s penalty area. I like this idea of naming players after restaurants, it adds the human element to some of these £100,000-a-week superheroesque figures we call footballers. Man, if I had £100,000 I could retire tomorrow – as long as I didn’t blow it on a Lambo or something first.

But never mind how much these guys are being paid, even if it’s somewhat relevant: I’d guess Liverpool’s player wage budget is far greater than that of Latics, to the extent Chris Kirkland has recently been reduced to begging for bus fares on Library Street. Well, it looked like him anyway…

The Reds looked awesome in the first twenty minutes and Wigan struggled to live with their attacking play. The balance would be restored somewhat as the first half progressed, however, with each team looking equally speculative, putting the ball about with some pace. Who says the art of the pass is dead to the English game, eh?

Pepe Reina

Pepe Reina: Liverpool's saviour?

Wigan had the ball in the net on 30 minutes, only to see Rodallega’s strike ruled out for offside. Unlike on Saturday, this decision was more clear cut so we can’t exactly blame the officials of home bias on this occasion. Not that I did that over the weekend, mind, but plenty of others did for me, and how.

Every time Liverpool came forward, they looked threatening, with Steve Gerrard orchestrating a tight midfield four. They bided their time, scrutinising every pass their opponents made, hunting the mistake with a moderate amount of success. It wasn’t exactly a flawless performance, but their tactic did the job for the most part. You know, one of the half dozen bog-standard Away From Home Strategies™, but with a Scouse twinge. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that, but Wigan weren’t without their moments, either, with Diame, N’Zogbia and Rodallega all threatening to threaten (an apt term if ever I heard one) at various points in the half.

Much like they did at Blackburn, Wigan once again started brightly after the half time break, looking lively and getting the ball in the Liverpool third. Unlike against our Lancastrian neighbours (well, they are in the global scheme of things anyway), though, it would lead to an equaliser on 52 minutes from the boot of Hugo Rodallega. The Colombian would challenge the Liverpool backline again very soon after, and were it not for Jamie Carragher, Wigan could have been 2-1 ahead. It would just about have been deserved, too. How the game’s dynamic had changed since those first few minutes.

Surprisingly, the game was now there for the taking, if Wigan could find their finishing pumps. Obviously Liverpool are always going to be an ever-present danger, but Latics were now on the front foot, and for the first time, three points certainly wasn’t out of the question. The on-fire Charles N’Zogbia did his stuff, and as we all know, on this form he can trouble the best of them. He and Cleverley continued to win the free kicks in forward positions, much as they have been doing to great effect of late.

Victor Moses entered the fray on 68 minutes, replacing Jordi Gomez, who was his usual self in the centre of the park. Moses immediately set about creating some pressure on the left wing as Wigan continued their barrage on the South Stand end.

Then, out of almost nowhere, a Liverpool break resulted in a narrow let off for the Latics as Steven Gerrard crashed one against the underside of the bar as a reminder of just what he, and Liverpool, are capable of. It was exactly the sort of sucker punch that, on Saturday, would have nestled in the Wigan net, but fortunately the score remained one apiece.

With the minutes ticking away, Latics created two successive chances thanks in large part to the dangerous Tom Cleverley, who almost seemed a step ahead of the rest of his front line. Charles N’Zogbia then found himself in great positions twice in three minutes, each time following some nervous passing from the away side. Neither really troubled the keeper, however.

As the match entered stoppage time, both sides continued to push for the winner. The previous 90 minutes’ exertions started to take their toll on the Wigan defence, but a couple of potential Liverpool opportunities were subsequently snuffed out, and the game ended in a much deserved draw for the Latics.

I have to admit I thought we would be hammered tonight, and think we’ve learned something about this Wigan side – they can be a force to be reckoned with, especially at home. No win tonight, but our play could well have warranted three very useful points. Sound familiar? Well at least things are looking far rosier than they were towards the end of last season. This ‘progress’ Martinez is always banging on about is starting to come to fruition, and not before time, you might say.

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