It’s been just under three months since Wigan’s near-miraculous great escape, and we’re already back in action for a brand new season of Premier League football. After such an intense finish to 2010-11, you’d have thought we might have been afforded a little more time. I for one am still recovering from the madness, and hoped Latics were more ready for this contest than myself.
Latics kicked off this fresh campaign against Norwich, a side they hadn’t encountered for a good seven years – the last meeting between the clubs, a Division One clash on 9 April 2004, resulted in a resounding 2-0 win for the Canaries. To make you feel really old, it should be noted that the likes of Andy Liddell, Ian Breckin and Jason De Vos were on the teamsheet at Carrow Road in front of a crowd of 20,000+, who witnessed Darren Huckerby and Mathias Svensson make relatively light work of a playoff-chasing Latics.
That was now and this is then, however. Much has changed, not least the fact both clubs have since managed to achieve Premier League football (in the case of Norwich, twice), and today’s game promised to be an interesting affair. The first match of a season is always hard to accurately predict, doubly so in this instance. This time last year, Latics had just been slaughtered at the hands of newcomers Blackpool, struggling to settle on a line-up and with a defence still on their pre-season jollies. This time round, however, Wigan’s warmup campaign has been a little smoother with the first team emerging unbeaten since May. As on so many occasions in the past two seasons, it would be difficult to tell which Latics team would turn out.
Wigan took to the pitch without Antolin Alcaraz and Hugo Rodallega as Martinez was forced to field the same starting XI that began the game with Villareal.
Norwich found their feet first, enjoying some possession in the initial stages. Franco Di Santo and Victor Moses were the primary thorns in the Canaries’ backside as the half progressed, however, with Wigan finding their way back into things with a bit of possession. Though they never troubled Al Habsi, the visitors remained a threat throughout, making for a reasonably well-contested first half.
Wigan landed the first telling blow, Franco Di Santo brought down in the opposition area by Richie De Laet, who was lucky not to receive a yellow card. His desperate lunge was no doubt the result of a simple mistake as he conceded possession to the Argentine deep into his own half. Ben Watson slotted away the resultant spot kick to put his side into a just-about deserved lead. This sparked Norwich into life, as both Surman and Holt caused some problems for the Wigan defence.
However, the home side will be disappointed to have conceded. Adrian Lopez, who’d earlier sustained a bloody forehead in a clash of heads with Morison, lost out on the left side of defence to the Welshman, whose cross deflected off a Latics leg on its way into the danger area. Al Habsi fumbled rather uncharacteristically, and Hoolahan powered home from close range to put Norwich on level terms.
Wigan reacted well to the equaliser, and Franco Di Santo could have earned his side yet another penalty when he looked to be tripped in the opposition area. Referee Attwell, just metres from the incident, simply waved away Latics’ (well, Di Santo’s) appeals. Seconds later, he almost restored the hosts’ lead but could not keep a header from Moses’s cross below Ruddy’s crossbar.
It was the hosts who also began the second half in the ascendancy, Di Santo mere inches from restoring Latics’ advantage on 51 minutes with a header from just inside the area. Shortly after, he and Jordi Gomez made way for Conor Sammon and Hugo Rodallega as Roberto switched things around. Wigan continued to pressure the visitors, and really set about asserting some kind of dominance.
But that Latics goal just didn’t come. Norwich always seemed to have an answer, and the hosts became frustrated and sloppy. The final five minutes saw a brief resurgence, Ben Watson smacking the post from 20 yards. Conor Sammon almost pounced on another Canaries defensive error, crossing to Moses who only succeeded in smashing his shot against the legs of De Laet, who redeemed himself somewhat after the mix-up with Ruddy. The ball immediately fell to Rodallega, who also saw his goal-bound strike blocked.
Wigan pressed until the final whistle, but couldn’t find a way through. There is much to ponder for Martinez, who spoke to BBC’s Final Score.
“Playing against a newly-promoted side, it was a tough game for us. We were a bit rusty at times, and aren’t happy with the manner we conceded, but I am delighted with the way we reacted. We had to defend well because Norwich are going to cause problems against whoever they play. I feel we are a lot better than that [the way we played].” — Roberto Martinez, speaking to BBC
As usual, there are many issues for Roberto to address post-game. As the man himself explicitly states, the defence wasn’t exactly watertight, and the odd unsuccessful clearance led to some unnecessary periods of pressure on the Wigan goal. Perhaps the return of Alcaraz will go a long way to remedying this. I also feel Rodallega would be better suited in the centre than on the left side, where he struggled to make much of an impact. Victor Moses, by contrast, shone like a bright thing and almost grabbed himself a spectacular goal or two – who needs N’Zogbia?
In all, though, it was a pretty frustrating afternoon as you feel Wigan could easily have come away with the three points. I wouldn’t worry too much yet, however, for there are another 37 games to put this right, and besides, we’re already in the top ten of the Premier League. If officials called proceedings to a halt and declared the current table as final, I’m sure both Wigan and Norwich would be more than happy.