Wigan inched closer to their rivals at the bottom of the Barclays Premier League with another point, but once again missed out on a great opportunity to lift themselves out of the relegation zone with a win against an uncertain Aston Villa. Both sides had their moments in a largely insipid contest, but by the 98th minute, neither had done enough to deserve that all-important winning goal.
An unchanged Latics looked to attack their opponents early, and managed to get away couple of efforts through Caldwell and Gomez. None were particularly challenging, and Villa very nearly made Wigan pay within the first quarter of an hour. Robbie Keane drew a fingertip save from an unsure Al Habsi, who must have been spooked by the somewhat uneven surface because the shot was simply placed towards the corner of the South Stand goal and caused him a modicum of trouble. There was also an edginess in the Wigan passing game, and the odd innocuous sidefoot took a wild bobble to fox members of both sides, but particularly Latics. That said, it was the home side that bossed possession, even if the best chances fell to the Villans.
The closest any side came to breaking the deadlock was on 13 minutes, when Darren Bent so nearly jabbed the ball past a charging Al Habsi. The Omani made himself big enough to get a block on the shot, and how crucial it was – the ball bounced away for a corner. After a long period of Wigan domination –well, in terms of possession– the visitors experienced a second wind with a few minutes of the half remaining. Much like Wigan’s, this good spell would not yield much in the way of chances, though Carlos Cuellar may have headed his side ahead on 38 minutes had he reacted to Albrighton’s deflected corner a little quicker.
The second half was more exciting, even if only by virtue of time running out. Cuellar made Al Habsi work almost immediately, smacking the ball right at the Omani international from close range. Wigan then won a string of corners, but only one or two of them would cause much trouble for Villa – even then, Jordi Gomez could only head wide. Hugo Rodallega would replace said Spaniard shortly after, a tactical change that sparked a series of substitutions from both sides which slowed the pace of the game.
Ex-Wiganers Charles N’Zogbia and Emile Heskey were drafted into the action as Darren Bent was stretchered off after sustaining what looked like a pretty serious leg injury in a challenge with Antolin Alcaraz. For a time, it was end-to-end stuff, but Wigan soon settled back into dominance of possession and set about attempting to find cracks in the otherwise resolute Aston Villa backline. That’s not to say Villa were out of things, however – they picked their moments to break but simply couldn’t produce in the final third, a criticism more commonly levelled at today’s hosts.
Up until the 85th minute, no goalkeeper had been tested in a second half that can’t have been too easy for neutrals. That changed when Rodallega got away arguably Wigan’s best shot of the game, insofar as it actually resulted in Shay Given pouching the ball. Though the Colombian’s strike was straight at the keeper on this occasion, the Latics attacks were now looking more likely. Mo Diame, making his first appearance for Wigan since before the African Cup of Nations, entered the fray on 79 minutes and was now teaming up well with Moses and Rodallega to create one or two openings.
After a long, long time without a single shot on goal, the strikes were suddenly coming in at both ends, Charles N’Zogbia skying his free-kick over the bar and into the frustrated Villa fans in the North Stand. Franco Di Santo also challenged Given minutes later, the Irishman diving low to his right to punch away a shot surely destined for the back of the net. Both sides exchanged corners before the half was out, but neither could produce anything worthy of breaching the other’s sturdy(ish) defensive line.
Following a mostly “unglamorous” 97-and-a-bit minutes of play, Aston Villa will be the happier with a point considering Wigan’s controlling of the ball for large chunks of the contest. As for Latics, much emphasis now rests on upcoming games with Swansea and Norwich, but the good news is that Roberto Martinez’s side have yet to be beaten for almost a month now. A win, perhaps even two, would restore confidence in potential survival before the month of death. Let’s not talk about that just yet, however, because March will be equally as critical with five games in almost as many weeks.