Ali Al Habsi was once again the hero as Latics picked up another useful point against top-four challenging Liverpool. Though the visitors largely bossed proceedings, the game could have gone either way thanks to the Muscat-born shot stopper, who made eight saves to keep his side in the contest. Most pertinent was his right-handed punch to keep Charlie Adam’s 51st minute penalty from finding the back of the North Stand net, though it was his performance over the 90 minutes that earned him a deserved man of the match award.
The Wigan starting lineup remained unchanged once more, with David Jones covering at left back alongside Figueroa, Caldwell and Alcaraz. Diame and McCarthy took up position in the heart of midfield, while Jordi Gomez had free reign in the centre of the park. Much as on Saturday afternoon, Conor Sammon played a bustling ‘battering ram’ role, paving the way for the fresh legs of Rodallega and Di Santo to push for late goals.
It was all Liverpool in the first half hour, penning a nervous Wigan firmly into their own penalty area with some relentless attacking play. Al Habsi was made to earn his money with a string of saves during a hectic period which saw the hosts’ goalmouth peppered. Henderson was the first to test the Wigan keeper, his right-footed shot fisted away for a corner. Dirk Kuyt was next to produce a strike of note with a short-range effort just to the left of Al Habsi, who managed to shovel the ball out for David Jones to clear. Wigan’s clean sheet was still intact, for the time being at least.
Liverpool’s best chance of the half fell to Glen Johnson, who was also foiled by the on-song Latics keeper. The England international latched onto a Wigan clearance and worked his way past McCarthy before playing a quality one-two to find himself one-on-one with Al Habsi. Luckily for the home side, the Omani closed down well to block the effort and deny Liverpool a deserved goal.
Wigan eventually broke the visitors’ chain of forays forward with an equally sublime piece of skill from Victor Moses. He first won the ball in the left back position, powered past Adam and Johnson and sprinted purposefully into opposition territory. Still on his own, the former Palace man then saw off Johnson a second time on his way to the edge of the Liverpool area and forced Pepe Reina into a punch clear. Had his strike found the net, the Anglo-Nigerian’s N’Zogbia-esque effort would certainly have been a strong contender for the Wigan goal of the season.
Having endured much pressure, Latics were now beginning to enjoy their own spell of possession and looked confident going forward. Moses and Diame, the latter of whom was something of an attacking force in the first 45, were starting to see some of the ball and charged forward at every opportunity. No more shots were forthcoming for the hosts, however, and ref Michael Oliver brought a halt to a scoreless, but relatively exciting, first half.
The aforementioned Mr Oliver was forced into a decision almost as soon as the second half got underway. Antolin Alcaraz was fortunate to escape a yellow card for a foul on Charlie Adam, but the home side still had to defend the subsequent Luis Suarez free kick. From the edge of the area, the Uruguayan curled one over the four-man Wigan wall only to see his effort thumped clear from just under the bar by Al Habsi.
Not to be denied, the Reds continued to pour forward and were gifted a fantastic opportunity just minutes later. Charlie Adam played a great through ball to Jose Enrique, who crossed a slightly misdirected ball into the penalty area. After one or two failed half-clearances, Suarez got away an overhead kick which smacked straight into one of Gary Caldwell’s two outstretched arms. A penalty, no doubt, and a chance for Adam to give his side a lead which, on balance of play, would have been fair enough. But Liverpool did not count on Al Habsi, who lunged to his left and pulled off a fantastic save, much to the relief of his captain and the Latics faithful. An audible roar akin to those heard when Wigan score (which hasn’t happened that often recently, but hey) reverberated around the DW Stadium when 15,000 Laticsmen (and women) realised that yes, Ali had pulled off another blinder.
The Omani’s night was far from over – with over 30 minutes left to play, the visitors were looking increasingly likely. Al Habsi palmed away an Adam corner before pouching a Dirk Kuyt shot just on the hour mark. Soon after, Suarez won his side another free kick (and a booking for Gary Caldwell) in a dangerous area, and Charlie Adam put in a menacing ball. Thankfully for Latics, Kuyt skied the resultant opportunity way over the bar and into the Liverpool supporters congregated in the North Stand. On this occasion, Al Habsi breathed a sigh of relief having been spared another strike on the Wigan goal.
The 73rd minute. Ben Watson and Hugo Rodallega had just entered the fray, joining the recently introduced Franco Di Santo. If Saturday’s events (and indeed many previous encounters this season) were anything to go by, this was a signal that Wigan were pushing for the winner with the old oft-employed ‘fresh legs factor’. As things transpired, this was Wigan’s best attacking spell since late in the first half, and it could easily have produced a clear cut opportunity to emulate that 1-0 scoreline of last season.
The best opportunity for that smash ‘n’ grab winner fell to Rodallega in the 86th minute. After some good pressure from Franco Di Santo, Victor Moses found himself in a great position to centre a high ball. He picked out Rodallega on the back post wonderfully, but the Colombian’s short-range header was deflected clear by Johnny-on-the Spot Johnson (not his real name, incidentally). Hugo would have to wait a little while longer for his first goal of the campaign. Not that he wouldn’t have been grateful of more work: I’m sure he would have relished it, but it’s nice to have a little rest every once in a while.
From the resultant corner, Victor Moses went tantalisingly close as his right footed stab dribbled past a sea of bodies and wide of the target. He put his hands to his head as it slowly dawned upon him that he could so easily have just bagged the winner. Alas, it was not to be, but there was no time to dwell on missed chances.
The first couple of minutes of stoppage time passed by without real incident, but there was still time for a late Liverpool winner. As the game ticked over into the 94th and final minute, Antolin Alcaraz gave away another free kick in the Wigan third of the field. Substitute Craig Bellamy stepped up, set himself to smack it into the top corner of the goal… and hit the wall. Latics cleared, and a final, tame shot was gobbled up by the outstanding Ali Al Habsi. Fitting that the Omani should have the final say considering his performance, which went a long way towards winning another unexpected point for his resurgent Latics side.
This is turning out to be a better December than I, and many others, anticipated. It seems the fortune is back with Latics at the moment, and I think we ought to capitalise on that while we still can. Unfortunately, the next game is against Man United on Monday, so we can write off any points from that. Or can we? Wigan have already earned two draws against top-of-the-table sides, so who’s to say this won’t be the first time we take points from our Mancunian cousins (the Red ones, of course)?
Well, perhaps such optimism, while understandable, is misplaced. Nevertheless, you should check in again soon, for it should be a cracker of a game at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. Geddit, cracker? Merry Christmas.