We’re now on a rapid road to the all-important closing stretch of the 2010-11 Premier League season, a series of 8-10 games which could see Latics hang on for their very lives or, conversely, roll over like a subservient dog begging for its belly to be tickled. Will we be up with the big boys come August of this year, or skulking around in the Championship bemoaning our bad luck? Well, on the evidence of today, it’s hard to tell.
Before those crucial final clashes, we’ve first to see out some rather tough tasks which will be the litmus paper for what’s to come. There’s Man United, Man City, Tottenham and Chelsea all waiting in the next month, but today Latics made the relatively short trip on the Wigan Northwestern-Liverpool Lime Street service (which was probably late again) to the home of the Beatles, Cilla Black and of course Paul O’ Grady. Well, he was born in Birkenhead, actually, but it’s in the Liverpool general area in much the same way Skelmersdale is part of Wigan. Perhaps.
Wigan’s league position would suggest we’re in danger of falling away, leaving us in the situation of having to beat one of the aforementioned big boys to keep in touch. How close did the Latics come to achieving this in their first test this afternoon? Well, if you read on you might find out.
Knowing how important each and every result will be from hereon in, it was vital Latics remained positive to snatch any potential points on offer. A full-strength Wigan started in just that manner, putting the ball about in the Liverpool half with promise. As the opposition found their feet, however, the visitors would see their time on the ball curtailed by an in-form Reds side, Raul Meireles pouncing upon Wigan’s failure to get the ball out of their area. From a deflected Aurelio cross, the ball landed perfectly at the Portuguese’s feet for a volley past Al Habsi’s right hand, a quality finish on par with some of the proverbial bunnies he’s been pulling out of the hat of late.
Liverpool followed this up almost immediately with a Suarez shot that would find the outside of the post, leaving Al Habsi with next to no chance. Minutes later, we were mere inches away from being 2-0 behind, but managed to see through a rough patch to emerge the stronger side going into the break. Charles N’Zogbia and Ben Watson would draw Reina into some half-saves from a free kick and a corner respectively as the visitors finally started to threaten the Liverpool goalmouth.
Half time didn’t stop Latics, who set upon the hosts’ goal right away, continuing to push for a sorely needed equaliser. By the 60th minute, Liverpool were looking relatively comfortable despite only our second shot on target and another just past Reina’s right hand post courtesy Hugo Rodallega, who was supplied with a fantastic ball from Victor Moses for the latter. But, from a telling N’Zogbia cross, Latics managed to bundle the ball into the Liverpool net via Steve Gohouri at full stretch at the back post. There wasn’t much doubting he was in an offside position as the ball deflected off Antolin Alcaraz, but the linesman seemed to miss it and Wigan were back on level terms. Certainly fortunate, but it’s another example of putting the ball in the danger area and getting results.
Then came the Liverpool barrage, increasing with intensity as the minutes passed. Like the visitors, however, they would struggle to challenge the keeper, missing the target from corner after free kick. They went through three different set-piece takers, each of which couldn’t keep the ball down for their respective free kicks and building some frustration on the terraces.
Alcaraz and Caldwell soon found themselves in referee Kevin Friend’s book as Luis Suarez caused his usual problems in and around the Latics penalty area. In fact, Wigan can count themselves very lucky to have Gary Caldwell –playing in a Batman-style mask to protect his recovering cheekbone– still on the pitch come the 94th minute as once again the Uruguayan stole in only to be brought down by the big Scot. Thankfully, Friend proved our greatest ally, choosing not to award Caldwell a second booking.
Suarez’ subsequent free kick rattled against the top half of the bar, leaving Al Habsi flat footed. Though the Reds would win a corner directly from this, no shot on target would ensue and Wigan emerged unscathed. It was a close run thing, but the nearest the hosts would come to scoring for the remainder of the game.
The last ten minutes were a case of defending for dear life, the Wigan backline pushed so far back they were almost building a sand fort on Crosby Beach. More shots would rain in –though almost none found the target– resulting in some last ditch clearances from a defence that must have consisted of at least eight men by this stage. Liverpool would extinguish all Wigan attacks, too (though to be fair they numbered two), to ensure this contest remained tied after 93 minutes of play.
Another point to keep us ticking over, then, and a growing unbeaten run stretching back to our loss to Aston Villa at the end of January. Yeah, I know it isn’t that impressive but when you’re down there fighting you have to grab what confidence you can. You could say Wigan were lucky, however, to have even had a goal at all. At times it seems we’re playing with six midfielders and lacking proper firepower that an actual full-blooded attacker brings to the side. That said, 4-5-1 was probably the best way to go this afternoon, and will most likely be the lineup we see against Man United and Man City in the coming two weeks.
Don’t forget our midweek FA Cup tie against Bolton, which will be another chance for the fringe team players to stake their claim for a starting place next weekend. Let’s just hope it doesn’t tire everyone out, because we’re going to need all the energy we can muster to keep us in the race for Premier League survival. It’s only going to get harder.