Before today’s game, it had been precisely five years since Wigan’s last goal at Old Trafford. A Leighton Baines penalty on Boxing Day 2006 had no effect on that match’s final outcome, as Latics went on to lose the game 3-1. Still, it was the closest Wigan have ever come to tasting any sort of success in Salford. Actually, in their Premier League lives, Wigan have beaten Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, but have never taken a single point from Manchester United. One would have thought our Mancunian cousins might have slipped up at least once in that time, but on each occasion, without fail, fortune has deserted Latics.
It transpired to be another difficult afternoon for Wigan, with a bit of bad defending and bad luck contributing to an on-song United’s often sublime football to ensure an expected defeat for Latics. It wasn’t entirely embarrassing, however – when one has lost 9-1 and 8-0 in recent seasons, 5-0 is almost nothing, especially when you’ve been reduced to ten men with over a half of football to play.
The hosts were initially happy for their opponents to keep the ball, as if to say “show us what you’ve got”. But any headway Latics might have made with one or two early charges forward were soon put into perspective with a rather soft 5th minute Ji-Sung Park goal. Well, at least that was the obligatory early goal against out of the way. Still shaken, the Wigan back line was being breached all too easily by Park, Giggs and Nani to name but a few. Alex Ferguson’s four pre-match changes seemed to have no negative effect on his side’s attacking threat, which Wigan would have to endure plenty of in the first twenty minutes.
The visitors had their best chance to date on 24 minutes via a free kick in dangerous territory, but it came to nothing as Gomez’s shot cannoned straight into the wall. Soon after, Victor Moses showed a little of what he can do by earning his side a corner, but this second set piece in the space of three minutes would also be successfully defended by the hosts.
Latics were finding some confidence going forward, Ronnie Stam in particular having a good time on the right hand side. His 30th minute ball across the face of goal could have yielded an equaliser, had Moses or Sammon been in the right position to slot it away. It wasn’t an isolated incident, either, as the Dutchman often found himself in the position to deliver a telling cross towards the back end of the half. Still no goals, however, and you felt they would be rather precious for the visitors this afternoon.
United were still firmly on top. Shots periodically rained in on Al Habsi’s goalmouth, but thankfully for Wigan, not many had been hitting the target. Well, not until this point, anyway.
Just when Wigan thought they were in with a glimmer in this contest, a moment of muppetry from referee Phil Dowd effectively killed their threat dead. Conor Sammon was harshly sent off for… well, not much, really. It was the sort of thing he’s been doing all season and, no doubt, his whole career – holding off an opponent, that is. Sure, his arm might have been a tad high, but it was no straight red card. Well, I suppose this was Mr Dowd, wasn’t it?
As if to rub things in, United almost immediately doubled their lead through Dimitar Berbatov and, with just minutes to the half time break, a slightly unlucky Latics found themselves with a near-impossible task. Well, I suppose if you’re going to have a man sent off, it may as well be in a contest you’re going to lose anyway, eh? It should be noted that Sammon should return for Saturday’s showdown with Stoke, as having seen replays of the incident I have every confidence his red card will be rescinded. Of course, that didn’t help during the game at hand.
It was a case of keeping things respectable in the second half, but Martinez also had half an eye on the attacking situation. Momo Diame was the sacrificial lamb as Franco Di Santo entered the field of play at half time, and he would have to do the job of two men as Wigan’s sole striker for about forty minutes. This was, at the very least, an opportunity for the Wigan boss to try out a few attacking options without much pressure with regards to the result.
In a fast-moving affair, the expected United pressure continued, though an occasional Latics foray forward punctuated the home side’s dominance. At the very least, the travelling Latics supporters –many of which donned the now traditional banana suits– were somewhat happy, cheering on their side and piping up with the odd sarcastic comment regarding the officials. As if spurred on, David Jones went close twelve minutes into the second half, clipping a free kick just wide of the post. A corner soon followed to prove the visitors weren’t about to lie down, not just yet.
But then, the almost inevitable happened. United got a third through Berbatov, and a repeat of his side’s 5-0 drubbing of Fulham just last week was on the cards. The ten men of Wigan would have to work hard to limit the goals conceded, for if previous seasons are anything to go by, they will no doubt have some bearing come May 2012.
Ali Al Habsi did his bit by preventing a fourth on 70 minutes with a great reaction save from Macheda to give the bananas a little more to cheer about. In fact, they were relatively cheerful and in good voice right up until –and long after– the final whistle, even when ex-Latic Antonio Valencia (now there’s a blast from the past) got that fourth for the hosts with a great strike into the bottom corner of Al Habsi’s goal.
United made it five on 77 minutes when Dimitar Berbatov completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot. There’s some debate over whether Antolin Alcaraz’s foul on Park was actually inside the area, but you always expected the referee to award it. The Bulgarian duly obliged, putting away the penalty with ease to increase the punishment.
Hugo Rodallega was introduced shortly after, another indication of Wigan’s attacking intent. Indeed, Maynor Figueroa, not content with being his side’s defensive stalwart, had a go at goal himself. He largely failed, but at least Latics still had the confidence to give it a real good go in the final five minutes of the game. Alcaraz, too, was allowed a late pot-shot as United wound down for the evening, but his effort sailed a few yards over the bar, and that was pretty much the last action of the game.
In all, it doesn’t take a small-time internet blogger to tell you it wasn’t a great day for Wigan. The work rate was fine, but the lack of finesse was, ultimately, damning. In some respects, against championship-chasing Man United, 5-0 was a decent result when you consider the gap in quality between the sides and, of course, that slightly iffy sending off in the first half. Would Wigan still have lost? Most likely, but when one takes into account Martinez’s usual tactics, one can’t speculate on such things.
Oh, and in a strange twist of fate, Leighton Baines also scored from the penalty spot on the fifth anniversary of his goal for Latics. Pity that was in a completely different game for a totally different team, however. And not that it would have made much difference had he still been in this part of South Lancs, but well done him in any case.
Still, a result against Stoke would represent an excellent month for Wigan, Boxing Day defeat or no. It always hurts to lose, but I don’t think it’ll necessarily spoil a good Christmas, especially if things fall in our favour on Saturday.
The final word must go to the travelling Latics faithful, who never let the game’s scoreline ruin an afternoon out in Manchester. They deserve a good Christmas party as they really were a twelfth man on the afternoon, even if things didn’t go their team’s way.