2.35pm at the DW concourse, and all eyes were on West Ham’s battling performance against Champions League contenders Tottenham at White Hart Lane. It most likely will have gone unnoticed, but it was around this time that the starting lineups for Wigan’s clash with Birmingham were announced over the stadium tannoy. Had they been paying full attention, I’m fairly sure thousands of Wiganers transfixed by those tellies would have let out a large groan en masse when it was confirmed that Franco Di Santo would start ahead of both Rodallega and Sammon.
It wasn’t a huge surprise, all told, and undoubtedly the safe, conservative option once it became clear Hugo could not last the full 90 minutes. Safe, however, won’t get you the goals. Conservative won’t turn a draw into a win, a fact borne out in 60 minutes of football at the DW Stadium this afternoon. Thank goodness things changed from thereon in, and how.
You probably know by now that I wanted Wigan to start this game pretty much as they finished against Manchester City two weeks ago, with two front men that can actually pose a threat to the opposition goalmouth; it’s what we’ve been lacking for much, if not all of this season. Instead, we were forced to settle for Di Santo and his continued struggle to win the ball, let alone create any chances of note on his own against four opposition defenders. He looked lethargic and strangled, outnumbered by a physical Birmingham backline that ate the Argentinian for breakfast, dinner and tea. It simply wasn’t working, something even Derek Acorah would have been able to predict with ease.
As if to underline Latics’ problems, Liam Ridgewell cropped up on 6 minutes to slot home via the head of Jiranek. You could say Wigan should have cleared the initial free kick, which ultimately led to the goal, wasn’t fully dealt with, but then you could also say the former Villa man was in an offside position. Whatever, it was a goal, and a blow to the home side’s confidence from which they took a while to recover.
Despite all these problems, Wigan actually came away from the first half in the ascendancy, having pulled level on 25 minutes through Johnny on the Spot Tom Cleverley, who was on hand to mop up a spilled Ben Foster cross and grab his fourth goal for the club. A boost, no doubt, for prior to that moment Latics found it hard to string more than a few passes together, even garnering some boos for their perceived incompetence.
It can’t have helped that a formation not exactly conducive to scoring goals left Wigan all but playing with ten men and another bloke who is sometimes able to come into the action, briefly. In other words, Di Santo on his own up front was a bit of a pants idea, injuries or no.
To be fair, Franco did have one or two moments of promise, showing he isn’t a complete and total waste, in the fifteen minutes he played of the second half. Wigan seemed much brighter, beginning to get a real foothold in the game and having their best spell around the 60 minute mark. Then came the real turning point, the revelation. Rodallega and Sammon were introduced into the action in a double substitution, and what a difference it made. Immediately, things started to click in the final third and for about 20 minutes the visitors had no answer to the home side’s endless pressure.
Watson, Cleverley and N’Zobgia began to win more possession in midfield, chasing the ball and actually playing with some passion, something that’s been woefully lacking of late. On occasion, even Gary Caldwell stepped up to play the feeding midfielder position, admittedly with varying results, as Latics packed out the Brum penalty area. Finally, it was as if the importance of this match had begun to seep through and Birmingham could only try and slow things down as Wigan literally began to fight for their Premier League lives.
For all this endeavour, however, the ball had still to cross Ben Foster’s goal line. It seemed that even with a busier and more likely front line, the same old problem of sticking the ball in the net reared its ugly head. Having said this, I’m sure that, given more time the goals would have come, and at any rate this was definitely better than the lone front man tactic which wouldn’t have worked in of a season of matches. But then, I suppose there is ample evidence for this in the fact we’re rooted to the bottom of the table.
As the game drew to a close, Birmingham became proficient in tempering the hosts’ attacking threat, creating one or two chances of their own to boot. Cameron Jerome did his best to cause problems but suffered much the same fate as Di Santo, on his own in the Wigan half as his team mates defended for all they were worth. For most of the time, though, it worked in the sense they managed to repel all attacks.
I don’t know if I would be praising Wigan as much as I would have been if this contest were to end one apiece, because things would have been pretty dire. As it happened, Latics’ hard work was to be rewarded as two minutes into injury time Maynor Figueroa let fly with what looked like a bit of a pot shot which would normally have been snaffled by Ben Foster. However, for one reason or other he went the wrong way as the ball sailed into the centre of his goal, sending the home faithful into raptures. It was all a bit unusual, and you could have been forgiven for thinking Fig’s shot took a deflection on its way into the South Stand goal.
I don’t need to stress this, but the importance of that goal, which ensured Latics bagged the all-important Premier League points, was immense. Lose or draw today and you’d have felt it was as good as over for our survival hopes, but for once, thankfully, Wigan actually won a game they deserved to.
It keeps us in with a shout for another week, and with Hugo and Conor forming a partnership of some promise, there is hope we can pull off what will surely be known forever as Wigan’s great escape. Indeed, the odd rendition of the film’s classic theme could be heard in certain sections of the home support as Latics pushed for that vital winner.
With three points now separating the bottom eight clubs, the survival race has been blown wide open, and I’d say three wins and a couple of draws –which would take us to 41 points– may just be enough to see us through to our seventh season in the Prem. It ain’t gonna be easy, but here’s hoping. Three more against Tottenham, anyone?