Friends reunited: Ex-Latics Emile Heskey and Charles N'Zogbia (pictured) made token appearances from the bench
Villa completed a comfortable victory over Latics at Villa Park, Agbonlahor and Bent proving the difference between the two sides on the day. In direct comparison to Moses and Di Santo, there was no contest – at least in the way of goals which, after all, are what win you matches and ultimately keep you in the Premier League.
Though Latics showed signs of threatening in the first half, their composure in front of goal was severely lacking. Shay Given saw effort after effort fly past his goal and was only ever called into action to make the odd comfortable clearance.
Villa took a deserved lead, Gabriel Agbonlahor’s 36th minute thunderbolt leaving Al Habsi with no chance whatsoever. This signalled a slightly more positive strategy by Wigan, who looked to pour men forward in an attempt to snatch an equaliser before the 45 minutes were up. They could have snaffled that goal, too — Franco Di Santo had a fantastic chance on 42 minutes, but only succeeded in firing wide of Given’s right hand post.
It was an otherwise nondescript first half. Both teams toiled in front of goal, but it was Villa who found their range first, Darren Bent so very nearly giving the Villans a 25th minute lead. Just yards from goal, he got away a strike which Al Habsi just about managed to keep out via both palms. As far as Latics were concerned, there was a lot of possession and some neat little passes but once again a lack of potency up front. Though Diame initially looked sprightly, his threat was slowly neutralised as Wigan were pushed back. Victor Moses, too, never really got up to speed and could not exploit what defensive weaknesses Villa might have shown. Inexperience was certainly a factor, and you have to wonder how much different things might have been were Hugo Rodallega fit, but one suspects the result might have been just as disappointing.
Still, there were 45 more minutes to play, and at 1-0 down you’re always in with a chance of at least a draw, no matter how misfiring your frontline may be. Franco Di Santo showed a bit of what he can do, taking the ball deep into opposition territory before running into a wall of four Villa defenders and falling to the ground somewhat meekly. This typified Latics, who lacked spark and that final touch all afternoon – in fact you could claim this one incident is a microcosm of the past few weeks. To be fair to Di Santo, however, he played better than most and might even have had a goal or two.
Wigan’s task was made much tougher on 63 minutes. Darren Bent converted Agbonlahor’s excellent cross to double the home side’s lead, and although there was almost half an hour to play, you never really expected Latics to come back into things. Though they put up a fight, creating their best chances of the game in the last 20 minutes, the visitors lacked firepower and still couldn’t challenge Given. This was characterised by an excellent ball across the face of goal by sub James McArthur –who was partially at fault for the second goal– which nobody even considered taking the gamble to run for. At times, it seemed Latics were reverting to the old ’10 midfielders’ tactic of Martinez seasons past, with not a single natural goalscorer to make the difference.
Disappointment turned to frustration as the minutes passed, and Roberto threw on Shaun Maloney to try and shake things up. He did have something of a chance, but his attempt was blocked by the Villa keeper, who did well to snuff out a potential goal for the visitors. But as time fizzled out, so did Latics, and that fifth straight defeat was looking ever more certain.
As this season begins to unfold, it’s looking increasingly likely we’ll be right down there in that fight against the drop – no points in four Premier League games is certainly relegation form. It’s far too early to commit fully to such extreme opinions, but one thinks there might be some serious shopping to do in the Christmas transfer window. Either that, or Maloney and Sammon will have to step up to the plate, and quick, otherwise this is a rot which might not be stopped for some time.
Wigan will have two weeks to consider where things went wrong and try to banish a month of misery from their memory. Hopefully, Hugo Rodallega will be a bit closer to something resembling fitness for the visit of Bolton Wanderers on 15 October, because at this stage we’ll be grateful of small mercies.