Roberto Martinez reckons that, to stay in the Premier League this season, Wigan require 40 points. It’s a target figure that has been lowering week upon week as the bottom five continue to squabble between themselves, each struggling equally to pull themselves clear of the proverbial snake pit. This weekend’s round of matches may well prove a great opportunity for one or more of Latics, Blackpool, Blackburn, Wolves and West Ham to stake a great claim for survival with three crucial points. Two shall survive, three will fall.
For Latics’ own part, they faced Everton, a team languishing in the bottom third until not too long ago. Since then, though, they’ve managed to climb their way to the top ten thanks to a string of good results and have sealed their participation in next year’s Premier League with wins over teams in the bottom half of the table. Before kickoff this afternoon, they lay fourteen points and eleven places ahead of Latics, still with a mathematical chance of making the European places. It wasn’t as if they had nothing to play for, especially with age-old rivals Liverpool sitting just one win away. Form would suggest a comfortable Everton win, but you’re forgetting one thing: Latics are fighting for their lives.
Before the Blackpool game two weeks ago, goalscoring was the real problem, Latics struggling to score against a succession of top-6 teams. Things changed quickly, however, as things clicked into place against the Seasiders, yielding three goals whilst the following week saw a further two away from home against Sunderland. Wigan would go on to lose the game, however, and now it seemed defending was the problem, with Latics conceding as many goals as they scored in the previous two games. Martinez would have to find a balance and quick, before the season quickly transformed into a lost cause.
Wigan will come away from today’s game ruing some silly mistakes and squandered opportunities, having had by far the better of the second half and a great chunk of the first. They deservedly went ahead on 21 minutes through N’Zogbia, who was found nicely by James McCarthy. After stumbling, the Frenchman recovered to curl one past Everton keeper Tim Howard, just reward for some excellent, threatening attacking play which saw Latics unlucky not to have created a great deal of shots prior to the goal.
What followed was an altogether different story, however, as Everton proceeded to dominate possession and push the home side, who increasingly had to resort to guerilla tactics, back to their own goal line. They earned themselves an excellent chance to grab an equaliser when Charles N’Zogbia tripped Leon Osman in his own penalty area, but were denied by Ali Al Habsi who dived to his left and punch clear Arteta’s spot kick. Cue rapturous chants of ‘Ali’ from the home faithful: perhaps this was to be Latics’ day?
Wigan lost the services of Mo Diame who stumbled off on 44 minutes, and things looked to be getting worse as N’Zogbia took a knock after a clash with Leighton Baines. He soldiered on for the moment, however.
Such was Everton’s dominance that the home side’s only real attack following the goal came in the dying moments of the half, Howard drawn into a good save by goalscorer Charles N’Zogbia. Latics could count themselves slightly lucky to be ahead, but when you’re down at the bottom and fighting for your lives you need the odd thing to fall in your favour. And let’s be honest, we’re going to need a bit more.
It was in the second half that Wigan really came into their own. Beginning on the front foot, they set about bothering the opposition defence through Victor Moses, who replaced the hobbling N’Zogbia on 54 minutes. Charles’ replacement forged a great partnership with Rodallega, who also looked hungry, as both would cause problems right up until the final whistle. Tim Howard was forced into another top notch save as Moses looked to be ripping the opposition to shreds, and as the final 20 minutes drew near there looked to be only one winner. Moses again went close and everything seemed to be going to plan for the Latics. They were, however, in for a rude awakening.
It was a moment of madness from Hugo Rodallega that would cost the hosts two vital points. From a Baines corner on the Wigan left, the Colombian slam dunked the ball, basketball style, bang in the centre of his own penalty area, a blatant and perhaps stupid infringement reeking of ‘centre forward’s challenge’. Except it was more of a water polo move than a tackle. Baines duly slotted the pen into the roof of the net just past Al Habsi’s right hand and the visitors were back on level terms and looked good to salvage an unlikely draw.
Wigan came back strong, though, having perhaps their best spell of the game in the remaining ten minutes. Howard was drawn into another save and fumbled another, almost allowing Rodallega to be slot home past a sea of defenders and, by now, Latics attackers. Di Santo was thrown on and Martinez played the 4-3-3 card, which worked perfectly almost every time, except where it mattered in the final third. Alas, it was not enough, and for all the promise showed by Latics, the ball just would not find its way into the net. Story of the season, you might say.
In all, it was an excellent performance that will give the side huge confidence and heart heading into a series of equally crucial games against Villa, West Ham and Stoke. We’ll be looking at two wins to take us past the aforementioned 40-point mark, which is certainly no easy task but should things click next week then the West Ham game at home could be the clincher.
You can’t help but be encouraged by the commitment shown today, which could easily have seen Latics grab all three points. Some superb support very nearly pushed Latics to a winner in the final ten minutes, a magnificent effort from the home faithful which we would love to see replicated in two weeks’ time for what may well be the Most Important Game of the Season™.