Shaun Maloney’s sublime second-half strike sunk league leaders Manchester United to lift Latics out of the relegation zone for the first time in 2012. Victor Moses earlier had a goal disallowed in controversial circumstances, but fortune fell firmly in favour of Wigan as replays strongly indicated that the corner leading to the in-form Scot’s goal was incorrectly awarded. United were also denied a penalty in the latter part of the second half when Maynor Figueroa seemed to collapse upon himself, handling the ball on his way to the ground. The hosts repelled everything a below-par United had to throw at them, however, and emerged worthy winners on the evening.
Latics, unchanged for the fifth straight game, started superbly and hit United with four or five set pieces in the opening ten minutes. It wasn’t exactly an onslaught, though James McCarthy did draw a seventh minute tip over the bar from David De Gea. No goals, but certainly a moral victory for the home side, who fearlessly continued to come at Man United as the half progressed. They were almost undone, however, by a Ryan Giggs cross which could easily have found one of two United men at the back post, but Figueroa was on hand to crucially deflect the ball behind for a corner.
The hosts settled into a great period of possession and, dare I say it, control. What, against the Champions elect? You’d better believe it. This fact could easily have been bolstered on 28 minutes when Latics had the ball in the net, and it definitely wasn’t against the run of play. Victor Moses’s joy was short lived, however, as the assistant referee had already flagged for a Gary Caldwell foul on De Gea. It was more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Scottish stalwart, who was stood right in the keeper’s path as Moses headed home Shaun Maloney’s excellent corner from short range.
Undeterred, Latics resumed their pressing game. Though the visitors finished the half stronger, they had only a wayward Wayne Rooney strike to show for it and, somewhat remarkably, Wigan went into the break having had the better of the half. Even more incredible, however, was the 45 minutes (well, 50 if we’re being picky) of tense and exciting action to come.
Following the unfortunate events of Saturday, many Latics fans will have been aggrieved that yet another marginal linesman’s decision had gone against them. All talk post-Chelsea was of how fortune tends to “even itself out” over the course of the season, but that this generally doesn’t happen for the smaller sides. Indeed, Dave Whelan seemed to agree with this sentiment yesterday evening in a post-match interview with BBC Five Live, but then he is a bit of a moaner at times isn’t he? Much like myself, I suppose. Uncle Dave spoke, however, in full knowledge that a substantial amount of karma rebalancing had been played out in front of his very eyes at the DW Stadium that evening.
Wigan made the breakthrough on 49 minutes. Beausejour, throwing himself into a challenge with Phil Jones, won his side a somewhat fortunate corner on the United right. I presume Phil Dowd, being closest to the incident, made the decision but it was a difficult one to judge from where he was stood. Faced with a 50% chance of a correct decision, he got it wrong, and how costly it proved to be for the visitors. From the corner, Maloney played a one-two with Beausejour, jinked past Rooney and worked his way across the edge of the penalty area before wrapping his right foot around a wonderfully struck curler past De Gea in the North Stand goal. The former Celtic frontman now has two for the season, and both have been central to Wigan’s survival charge, coming as they have in wins over top-8 teams. Could he be the answer to our search for a regular goal-getter? Or will Latics stay up with their top scorer having netted just four goals? That must be a record of some sort.
The contentious decisions weren’t over just yet. Jonny Evans could count himself lucky to remain on the pitch after a late challenge on Maloney was deemed not bad enough for the Northern Irishman to receive a second yellow card. Poor Maloney, in the past couple of weeks he’s been kicked, punched and scythed to the ground with absolutely no sympathy – mind you, he’s not the sort of guy to complain about it, and if his pride was hurt, that goal yesterday will almost certainly ease the pain.
Both sides made substitutions as the game started to take a significant shift towards the visitors. Danny Welbeck replaced the quiet Javier Hernandez, while Luis Nani was also introduced in favour of Wayne Rooney, much to the crowd’s delight. It was somewhat surprising given his ability to turn games with magical moments we’re all so familiar with, but it really hadn’t been his night. He took his place on the bench to see cramp-afflicted Franco Di Santo switched with MoMo Diame, who’s carved something of a niche as a highly useful pair of fresh legs late in the game. It’s a tactic Martinez has always seemed to favour, especially with such quality ready and able to hit the opposition late on. Indeed, Diame has worked some real opportunities in the role this past month or so (with varying success, of course), and tonight would be no exception. More on that later on.
With less than twenty minutes to play, the visitors felt compelled to push for that equaliser, and enjoyed a decent amount of possession in the Latics half. It was their best period of play all evening, and could very well have resulted in a goal or two. But Latics, and indeed the officials, had other ideas. Phil Jones delivered a cross from the United right, but the ball’s path was blocked by Figueroa, who got in a complete mess and collapsed in a heap just outside the six-yard box. The ball clearly hit the Honduran’s outstretched left arm, but for some reason the very same linesman that ruled out Moses’s first half header was highly reluctant to award the penalty. Dowd must also have been ‘unsighted’, and though United went ballistic, no decision was forthcoming from either party.
The hosts were cut a further break when some manhandling of Welbeck just inside the Latics area went unseen shortly after, and fortune really was starting to balance itself out. Of course, I expected this process to take place over the course of a few games at the very least, but it all seemed to happen in one manic half of football.
It wasn’t all United, however. Wigan had three definitive opportunities to double their lead and put the game beyond doubt in the final ten minutes, first through Moses, then Diame, then Moses again. The first chance was all Victor’s doing; the former England U21 international skipped past numerous defenders on his way from the halfway line to the opposition six-yard box before striking across goal and drawing a save from De Gea. Not long after, Conor Sammon embarked on a similar run on the left flank, charging to the United byline before laying the ball off to MoMo Diame. Though his shot was blocked, the ball rebounded to the feet of Moses, who had an even better chance to stick it away but his strike deflected off the leg of Ryan Giggs and out for a corner.
There was still ample time for one or two jitters in the Latics area. Danny Welbeck had United’s best chance of the game eight minutes from time, but Ali Al Habsi was equal to the England international’s strike. It was a better save than it looked, especially considering he’d previously had nothing to do but punch the ball clear a grand total of one time.
That Man U failed to trouble the Wigan goalmouth for great chunks of the game was partially their own fault, but Wigan’s defence must take a great deal of credit. ‘That’ incident aside, Maynor Figueroa was the last ditch master as usual, Antolin Alcaraz was commanding both at the back and in joining the midfield, and Gary Caldwell was, well, Gary Caldwell. Each contributed significantly to the rearguard effort with important clearances in those final ten minutes, which the visitors spent camped well inside the Wigan half.
The hosts saw out a relatively incident-free five minutes of stoppage time, and the stadium, perhaps even the whole town, erupted – Latics had done it. In all their years as a Football League club, they had never even taken so much as a point against Manchester United – it was the one victory missing from the Wigan Premier League record book. More than that, it’s a win that means so much to Latics supporters, who’ve spent so long living in the shadow of their monumentally successful near-neighbours. Whilst a single win over them won’t change the fact Latics are battling against relegation and United challenging for the title, that all seems irrelevant right now because Wigan have beaten Manchester United. Say it out loud to yourself one more time, because it really is worth repeating. As you utter those magical words, think of all those hammerings they’ve dealt us in years past, the pain we’ve suffered at their hands. Revenge feels good, don’t it?
Contrast the events of last night to an afternoon in November. The officials had a similarly poor game against Blackburn, but Wigan failed to capitalise on their domination as both attack and defence struggled to impose themselves:
Latics really can’t buy a win at the moment, and it’s looking increasingly likely they’ll have to steal points from the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United to be in with a sniff of survival this season. — 19 November 2011
Those dodgy JWAW post-match scribblings reflected my own dejectedness at another game without a win. I cast my mind forward to this very week, what would surely be the greatest test of our credentials, in anticipation of a highly stressful end-of-season run-in. Whilst that may still prove to be the case (it usually is with Latics), Wigan Athletic are certainly far better equipped for the fight than back in November, and it’s a flipping good job. Why does it always take us 28 games to get the engine started, eh?