The gods were shining on Wigan Athletic this afternoon in more ways than one; the start of spring granted us some pleasant weather and equally enjoyable football as Latics blistered their way to a precious three points at a stunned Anfield.
Both sides enjoyed decent spells of control but Latics had the last laugh through Gary Caldwell, who was on hand to slot home the remains of James McCarthy’s deflected shot midway through the second half. Shaun Maloney had put Wigan ahead from the spot on the half hour mark before Luis Suarez’s equaliser shortly after the restart. However, the second Wigan goal visibly shook the hosts, who took a while to recover from the sloppy pass virus (huh, must have caught it from us) and couldn’t muster an answer before the game was out.
Though Liverpool dominated the opening exchanges, and indeed much of the first half, Wigan were happy to play the waiting game and endeavoured to hit their Liverpudlian opponents on the break. This familiar away strategy actually worked for once, at least in terms of the scoreline.
Wigan, sporting an unchanged starting lineup, went into the half time break one goal to the good, but it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles. Victor Moses was a casualty of the goal, which came via a sweetly-struck 30th minute Shaun Maloney penalty. The Scot provided the initial free kick which, after being half cleared by Jon Flanagan, came straight back into the danger zone and the general vicinity of a predatory Moses. As he attempted to bring the ball under some sort of control, he took a blow to the chin from Martin Skrtel’s boot and went down for the count. Referee Lee Mason awarded the spot-kick almost immediately, but it was at least three minutes before the Nigerian could regain his feet and somewhat surprising that he was able to continue. But not for long. After soldiering on for almost a quarter of an hour, it was clear he would be unable to continue and Albert Crusat was called upon to fill the right wing void. It would be a tough ask, for Moses had been the primary cause of concern for The Reds up until the goal, and almost made it onto the scoresheet himself on 10 minutes. Receiving the ball, he sprinted past the defender before entering the penalty area and letting rip, but Skrtel was on hand to provide a vital last-ditch tackle.
Maloney was his usual sprightly self, dashing around the midfield area and getting his hands dirty wherever the need arose. One gets the feeling he is fast becoming the new Jordi Gomez, not in terms of sheer abuse received (and please don’t take this as a condonement of the Jordi-haters) but in the role he plays. Gomez is Maloney light, more of a budget range midfielder than the full-bodied enthusiasm of Mr Maloney.
Liverpool resolved to come at Wigan with more gusto, after all, they were the home team. Latics didn’t change much, as even the introduction of Crusat was a like-for-like replacement for Moses. Try as they might, The Reds could not break through as attack after attack either fizzled out or resulted in the ball resting in the safe hands of Ali Al Habsi. Speaking of the O-man (groan), he pulled off one super save at full stretch to deny Luis Suarez (no, not that one), whose curling shot could so easily have beaten a less competent keeper. The Omani was again called into action soon after when Steven Gerrard’s potentially dangerous strike was palmed over the bar, and Wigan had successfully carried their lead into the half time interval.
Liverpool’s attacking intent was underlined when Andy Carroll replaced Jordan Henderson for the start of the second half. As expected, they began by probing the Wigan goal with a rather painful pointy stick, with tremendous success. The game hadn’t even been underway for more than two minutes before the ball was nestling in Al Habsi’s net, and it was a combination of Steven Gerrard and Luiz Suarez that did the trick. An excellent cross from the England stalwart coupled with a fine finish from the Uruguayan spelled trouble for the visitors.
The home contingent’s confidence was now flowing, and Wigan had a veritable storm to weather in the incongruously idyllic afternoon sunshine. It wasn’t long before Al Habsi was beaten again, and Luis Suarez seemed to have doubled his tally as the ball found its way over the Wigan goal line once more. He and Carroll wheeled away to celebrate, but their glee was shortlived – Lee Mason stood signalling a free kick to Wigan, and the goal had been disallowed. For some reason, referees are reluctant to give goals finished with the arm, and that was the case on this particular occasion but, in the words of Alan Hansen (who was present at Anfield to facepalm for the camera at appropriate junctures), you have seen them given. A let-off for Latics, who were now pinned to the turnbuckle like the Undertaker enduring a barrage of punches to the chest.
One piece of good news for Wigan was that this scoreline still stood at one each, and with the game still open for the taking, they never lost heart. The Liverpool pressure slowly started to die, giving way to a brief spell of Wigan possession in opposition territory. Latics won themselves a free kick, and took the opportunity to introduce Ben Watson in favour of Jean Beausejour. One assumes this was tactical, as the Chilean wingman didn’t seem to be carrying any visible injuries. Such considerations were all but banished from the mind seconds later, when James McCarthy got away a shot from just outside the area. The ball rebounded off the underside of Jamie Carragher’s arm to set up Gary Caldwell, who just so happened to be loitering in the old goal-hanger’s position. After taking a brief second to set himself, Captain Cald poked the ball past Reina and Wigan’s lead was restored. You could call it fortunate, but it would make up for things not really going our way against West Brom last week.
Wigan’s second goal was a real turning point. Liverpool seemed rattled and, for a long while, were unable to string together a decent number of passes. Admittedly, much of this can be attributed to increased Latics pressure upon the home side, who were now beginning to flounder in the face of Wigan’s man-to-man hassling. The next 20 minutes or so saw the visitors boss possession and prevent the hosts from so much as having a shot on goal. There wasn’t much in the way of strikes from Latics either, but control of the game took precedence because, as it stood, they were heading for the points. But there was plenty to come yet.
The tension ramped up a notch as the game entered its final ten minutes. Both sides made attacking substitutions, but it was Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling rather than Conor Sammon who made the more immediate impact of the two. The England U17 international is one pacey winger, and so very nearly set up in Martin Skrtel but Maynor Figueroa stole in to make an important clearance. Sammon played his part in Wigan’s own chance to put the game to rest on 85 minutes in creating an opening for but Ben Watson, but Skrtel was on hand to once again thwart his efforts.
There was just enough time for one more Liverpool free kick to threaten the Wigan goalmouth which, in all truth, had remained untested for quite a while now – since the disallowed goal, in fact. Though Al Habsi’s services were required more than once in the closing quarter of an hour, this Suarez effort failed to even make it past Figueroa, who headed clear and the game was almost won. After six minutes of stoppage time, the Latics defence had remained resolute and the final whistle blew – Wigan had earned themselves a fantastic three points to keep them in this increasingly nail-biting battle for survival.
As was the case last week, all concerned put in a sterling effort. The difference here was the result, and my goodness, do we have a habit of pulling them out of the bag just when we desperately need them? Maloney and Caldwell are the men of the match, but solid efforts from Al Habsi, McArthur and Moses to name but a few combined to dig out a long-awaited win. The passing was smooth, the defending stout and the attack… well, we got the goals, so I guess that’s what counts.
To me, an unanticipated win against Liverpool on their home turf is proof of Wigan’s improvement since the losses to Tottenham and QPR. Swansea was a blip, albeit a pretty bad one, but there has been a more competitive edge about Latics ever since. Whilst finishing is most certainly a niggling concern as we enter the final stretches of the season, today’s well-worked victory was more a case of getting one more than the opposition (at the risk of stating the obvious), and as a strategy against struggling Liverpool, it was successful. Luck also played its part –the Suarez non-goal was a key flashpoint of the afternoon–, but it’s always better to concentrate on your own game and let fortune run its course.
Stoke are next up at the DW Stadium, and just how welcome would three more points be? While today’s win keeps us in the mix, another would be great, perhaps crucial, going into a nine-day period which sees us face Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal. How did that song go again? “You keep me hangin’ on“, and that’s the name of the game. Come Sunday 13 May at the DW Stadium, we might just be in with a chance to save our skins yet.
Suarez pic courtesy Ahad18 @ Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)