It’s somewhat surprising that, in the long and illustrious history of the English Football League, Wigan have only crossed paths with Crystal Palace twice previously. Maybe it’s our ex-Palace contingent of Ben Watson, Emmerson Boyce and Victor Moses that makes it seem as though we’ve had more dealings with the Eagles, at least on the pitch, than we actually have. If one were being tongue-in-cheek, one might even say Latics are something of a Palace B-team, and that Dougie Freedman’s men would complete a comprehensive victory over a subservient visiting Wigan side.
It is true that Roberto Martinez has a mixed record against non-Premier League opposition, with some memorable wins and equally miserable losses –most notably that desolate 2-0 defeat to Notts County at the DW– thrown into the mix for good measure. On the whole, however, he’s been relatively successful, even with reserves and bench-warmers handed an opportunity wherever possible. Win or lose, the argument for fringe-teamers being given a run-out is compelling – after all, you can’t afford to field a weakened squad in any Premier League game these days, in more ways than one. Make too many changes and you risk the wrath of the Football Association, and unless you’re Alex Ferguson, a hefty fine to go with it.
Roberto promised his usual changes, and certainly delivered on this front, with seven alterations from the side that started against Manchester City at the weekend. Patrick van Aanholt, David Jones and Shaun Maloney were handed their debuts, while Albert Crusat made his first start for Latics. Conor Sammon and Hendry Thomas were drafted into the midfield and attack respectively, with McManaman and Dicko taking their place on the bench.
Captain for the day Maynor Figueroa was switched to a more central position while van Aanholt occupied the left wing. None of the aforementioned ex-Eagles retained their place in the Latics starting line up, with Boyce out injured and Moses and Watson jostling for position on the subs bench.
Latics, sporting a new all-white away strip, made a swift start with David Jones getting a strike away as early as the third minute. Palace were quick to counter, however, a set-piece initiated by Darren Ambrose resulting in a save by Ali Al-Habsi just a couple of minutes later. No team could say they really commanded the early stages, and Wigan were eager to bide their time and retain possession while still settling in.
Latics won themselves a free kick in dangerous territory on 20 minutes, but once again Jones just couldn’t find the target. Conor Sammon earned the visitors a corner shortly after, but the attack broke down and resulted in an almost immediate chance for the Eagles. From Dean Moxey’s assist, Glen Murray slammed a shot against the bar from all of 12 yards, leaving Al Habsi helpless in the Latics goal. The home side were on the scoresheet shortly after, Darren Ambrose netting for Palace on 24 minutes. Things would get even worse for Latics as, just half a dozen minutes later, the defence collapsed to allow Jonathan Williams to double his side’s lead.
With Crystal Palace now well and truly dominating things, Wigan were looking rather toothless up front and really up against it. Unable to get the ball forward, they could only pass the ball among themselves to the delight of the home side. Paddy McCarthy so very nearly made it three just a couple of minutes from half time, but Ali Al Habsi made the vital save. Glenn Murray hit the post shortly after, and a third for Palace certainly would not have flattered them – Latics were now playing like a Sunday league side with half a mind on their post-match pint. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it certainly was a dismal display.
Roberto Martinez was faced with the unenviable task of having to somehow galvanise his ailing squad for another difficult half of football. No subs were made at the break, but things would have to change if Latics had aspirations of making it past the 2nd Round of the 2011 Carling Cup.
The visiting side emerged with a slightly more attacking mentality, but were still just as frustrating in the final third. Palace didn’t really need to change anything, and continued to simply sit back and wait for Wigan’s attacks to break down before counter-attacking with renewed gusto. It was up to Latics to make the play, but they continued to labour while the hosts controlled things comfortably.
Though Albert Crusat briefly threatened the Palace defence and managed to win a corner, Wigan continued to look as though they were still in pre-season. Their slow, deliberate build-up play kept the tempo right down and the odd silly mistake meant almost every move was breaking down before it even reached the Latics forward men. Though they tried to push forward, even switching to the long ball for a period, it was all a bit pants to put it bluntly.
Finally, Martinez recognised something had to be done. Albert Crusat and Hendry Thomas made way for Ben Watson and Callum McManaman with 25 minutes to play. It almost worked immediately, Wigan coming closer than they had ever done previously. This new, forward-thinking strategy instigated by the subs resulted in a shot clipping the outside of the post from James McCarthy – much more promising stuff.
Though things were improving, it still wasn’t enough and time was starting to ebb away. Latics got their first shot on target in the 77th minute from long range and a couple more followed, but one got the impression it was too late. Van Aanholt crashed a shot against the crossbar to offer some faint hope of a possible comeback, and Nouha Dicko –the third Latics debutant of the night– was drafted into the fray to try and inject some pace out wide. With only five minutes to play, the game was realistically lost, however.
Ben Watson grabbed a consolation for the visitors with a thunderbolt from long range two minutes into injury time, but it was just that. The 2-1 final scoreline reflected Palace’s dominance of the game, which Wigan only really arrived at with less than half an hour to play. The home side’s gameplan proved far more effective than Latics’ slow-paced passing game, which failed to work through lack of forward-thinking play. Things improved markedly late on, but with Palace settled on their lead, it was all too late.
One must consider whether the result was secondary to gaining experience for fringe-team players, but it always hurts to lose, especially when you’ve given such a poor account of yourselves. Still, Saturday is another day, and with the first choice XI reinstated things could be an awful lot more positive.