Another fine Latics performance yielded a second straight victory to kept them well in the race for survival. Their last win at home came way back in August, some seven months ago, but recent improved performances seemed to suggest this ‘record’ would not last much longer. Stoke City were the unfortunate victims this afternoon, taking something of a battering in a second half of football that saw Latics dominate proceedings with goals from Antolin Alcaraz and Victor Moses.
Wigan, once again unchanged, faced a bigger challenge from the visitors in the first period. The Potters enjoyed periods of possession, most of which was spent in the midfield area scrutinising the Latics defence for potential cracks. They almost broke through early on, but Al Habsi was alert to danger when Ryan Shawcross flicked a corner goalwards, a great reactionary save from the Omani. This was all the visitors had to shout about, however, as despite a prolonged period of pressure on the Wigan left, they could only muster a Peter Crouch header over the bar (6 minutes) and the odd shot which failed to find the target. Jon Walters almost capitalised on an Emmerson Boyce mistake to nip in for an opportunist goal on 32 minutes, but on this occasion could only find the North Stand behind Al Habsi’s goal.
The hosts were equally culpable, squandering several superb opportunities throughout the half. Franco Di Santo, chasing one of his own charge-downs, found himself through on goal but saw his effort blocked in expert fashion by Asmir Begovic, so we shall let him off on that one. I also won’t blame Boyce who declined the opportunity to volley the ball home at the back post, instead taking a touch, with slightly less exciting results. I’m less inclined to say the same for Jean Beausejour who, when faced with what seemed like an open goal, failed to make decent enough contact with the ball to convert a fantastic Victor Moses cross from the right.
Of equal note was the contest between Beausejour and Jermaine Pennant, the former of whom was forced to play the role of a wing back for large chunks of the half thanks to some canny football from the former England U21 international. The two eventually descended into petty bickering, which resulted in a Beausejour yellow card. The DW temperature further rose less than a minute later when Boyce also entered Mark Clattenberg’s notebook as he wiped out Matthew Etherington with just over ten minutes of the half to play. Stoke’s stalwart soldiered on following an extended period of treatment, but was withdrawn just minutes after the restart to be replaced by Cameron Jerome.
Latics started the second period with an almost immediate penalty shout. Dean Whitehead was accused of handling the ball just yards from his own goal, but the officials either decided it was a case of ball-to-hand or just didn’t see it. Undeterred, perhaps even spurred on by this perceived injustice, Wigan really began to assert themselves. Following a spell of possession, they earned a free kick in an advanced position on the right hand side, and used the opportunity to get the ball into the area once more. Beausejour delivered a fantastic cross from the left, finding the head of Antolin Alcaraz with such startling accuracy that the Paraguayan only had to steer the ball past Begovic to make it 1-0 to Latics. They do, however (to quote Alan Hansen for a second time in seven days), still have to be finished and Alcaraz did so in emphatic fashion, a great header from the edge of the 6-yard box past the Potters keeper’s outstretched right hand.
So many times after a Wigan goal this season, we have seen our defences crumble under the opposition’s attempts to counter. This simply didn’t happen today, and the home side dominated possession to such an extent that Stoke struggled to make any headway into the Wigan half, failing to make it into Al Habsi’s penalty area time after time. Pulis quickly recognised this, and withdrew Walters and Pennant in favour of Ricardo Fuller and ex-Latic Wilson Palacios, who received polite applause as the PA announced his entrance. The visitors reverted to a three-man frontline in a renewed attempt to make some impact on an increasingly Wigan-dominated game. At this point there was still plenty of time for Stoke to retaliate, more than 30 minutes in fact.
Wigan made a substitution of their own, Ben Watson introduced in place of eventual fan man-of-the-match Shaun Maloney, but nothing much really changed. Victor Moses was still causing Stoke headaches in his role as support (and for a five-minute period, sole) striker, and won his side another free kick in dangerous territory after another marauding run down the right wing. Shortly after, Beausejour could have all but finished the game as a contest but once again failed to make decent contact at the back post. Quite how the Chilean finished the afternoon without writing his name onto the scoresheet is nothing short of amazing.
Despite their second half struggles, while the Wigan lead remained at just the one goal, Stoke were still in with a shout. Sure enough, they gradually worked their way back into the game. The Wigan defence became increasingly frenetic as the half time whistle drew closer, and there were a few anxious moments in the Latics area which could have spelled trouble. Peter Crouch drew a save from Al Habsi before Cameron Jerome shot over from inside the area, and there was more than an air of nervousness about Wigan’s attempted clearances. Could this be Stoke’s chance to grab something late on?
With a few minutes to play, the home side regained some control, and a couple of Jordi Gomez shots tested Stoke’s defensive mettle. The Spaniard, introduced for Di Santo on 81 minutes, was a welcome pair of fresh legs, but even more welcome was what came next. Moses, receiving the ball on the half way line, sprinted into the opposition half, brushed off two defenders before rounding the keeper and finishing coolly to put the game beyond any lingering doubt. With just a couple of added minutes to play, there was no time for the visitors to retaliate and when Clattenberg blew the final whistle, the DW volume was cranked so high you could hardly hear it. Well, where I was sat anyway.
The significance of this resurgence in form and, more importantly, upturn in results is reflected by the fact we have not budged from 19th place in the table since Wolves lost to Man United 5-0 just under two weeks ago. You’d think that in such a close survival race, two wins on the bounce would propel you out of the relegation zone and into temporary safety. It is slightly ominous, but you can only really concentrate on your own game and hope things go your way elsewhere. There is still a lot of work to do, but six points and four points in two games takes us into the ‘Month of Death™’ on a real high.
Next comes the real test – Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal within the space of nine days. Well, it was seven until the Sky Sports men had their way with things, and for once we are somewhat grateful of a couple of days extra rest! I’m not going to make a prediction as to how many points we will accrue before 17 April, but would be more than happy if we’re still in the mix. It doesn’t get much easier after that (Fulham and Newcastle complete our fixtures for the month of April), but recent form gives hope of more giant killings. Yeah, we’re due one or two of them before the season is out, aren’t we?