“You are always one defeat away from a crisis. On that basis, we’re in deep doodoo*.” — Villa manager John Gregory, 1999
*Word substituted for something more sanitary.
Lee Cattermole helped Steve Bruce get one over on his old club
Ahh, the joys of a good old-fashioned relegation scrap. Another week, another 90 minutes of tension, except this time round there was also a tinge of expectation. That’s what a solid performance, and more importantly a win, can do for your side. Moreover, previous weeks have seen particular fixtures involving fellow relegation battlers to Wigan’s benefit, meaning the win over Blackpool was enough to lift us out of the bottom three for the first time in what seems like months. It’s like a weight off your shoulders; after so many weeks of negativity and worry, just one win can drastically change moods and, hopefully, fortunes.
For a change, Latics went into this game on a high and with a real chance to pull further clear of the relegation places. The Black Cats had managed just one point in their last nine games, but this is less surprising when you consider the teams they’ve come up against – even the best of sides are going to struggle when faced with Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City within the space of two months. In Latics’ favour were Steve Bruce’s injury worries – Bramble, Mensah, Gordon and Campbell were all missing for today’s game with one problem or another, and things were about to get far worse in that respect.
Wigan were somewhat luckier, with only Maynor Figueroa out due to suspension. He’ll return for selection next week, but in the meantime Steve Gohouri has been filling in at left back. He and the rest of the Latics team travelled to the north east in good cheer, hoping to put one over on their old boss. Past encounters with Brucey’s new side had been favourable for Wigan, just about, with two draws and a Latics win since 2009.
Forget all that has gone before, though, because today’s match was not played out in the tabloid newspapers but at the Stadium of Light. The first half was relatively stale, the Black Cats bossing proceedings but not really causing Al Habsi too many problems. The best Wigan had to offer was Hugo Rodallega’s powerful strike which Mignolet managed to palm out for a corner, and though there were a few more promising attacks, it all seemed rather pedestrian. That’s fine if you’re 1-0 ahead, but this week that early goal didn’t come, and most forays into opposition territory were unpenetrating.
Wigan did go 1-0 up seven minutes into the second half through a Mo Diame screamer, one of the best goals we’ve seen this season. Totally against the run of play, it was a major confidence boost and, though Sunderland were still well on top in terms of possession and chances created, there was hope this could be another great away day.
Alas, it was not to be. Just minutes later, Sunderland would grab their equaliser through Gyan, and in the next half hour Wigan proceeded to crumble in spectacular fashion – it was like the Blackpool home game all over again. Defence was all over the place, passes were going well awry and Sunderland continued to get round the back of the visitors with great ease. They had done this to a certain degree in the first stanza, but the finishing touch simply was not there, whereas here it all clicked into place so wonderfully.
At this point, Wigan could have used a bit of luck; on another day, given a different referee, Antolin Alcaraz might not have conceded that penalty which put the hosts beyond Wigan’s reach and ultimately led to the all-out attack which would gift Sunderland their fourth.
Minor miracle: Franco scored
There was some consolation for Latics, however. All the planets came into alignment and a minor miracle occurred at approximately 4.52pm on 23 April – Franco Di Santo scored. Yes, after so many frustrating appearances, the Argentine bagged his first competitive strike for the Latics and probably cemented his place ahead of Sammon in the pecking order. Will he now go on to get a hatful? Probably not, as he will need another minor miracle just to make the starting lineup for Wigan’s next game.
To be honest, a goal was coming; Latics had threatened to grab one back via Moses, who so narrowly missed putting his side ahead just a few minutes earlier. It was all too late, though, and Wigan slip back into the relegation zone once again, albeit on goal difference. How far they will fall before their next game depends on evening and midweek matches, though there’s a good chance we might just hold on to 17th until 3pm next Saturday.
A real chance to gain points on our nearest rivals missed, Wigan now look to next week and another vital encounter with Everton at the DW Stadium. It’s getting to that stage where draws aren’t enough, but at least our attack line seems to have found its feet now. Five goals in two games away from home is a definite improvement, it’s just a question of whether Caldwell and Alcaraz can handle Cahill et al back in Wigan. We’re still in with a shout as there are indeed points available in the weeks to come, but it’ll take some defensive improvement.