Latics may still have been savouring the sweet scent of victory over the Champions elect, but they headed into this game with on-song Arsenal full in the knowledge their survival race was far from over. With other relegation-threatened teams having failed to make much ground on Saturday, however, this was essentially a ‘free hit’ – Wigan could play with the confidence that anything gained would be a bonus, and a highly useful one at that. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy; the Gunners rarely drop points at the Emirates Stadium, especially not to Wigan. The last time Latics even so much as scored away to Arsenal was through Denny Landzaat more than five years ago, and that was an exceptional effort.
Games, however, are rarely decided on history. More recently, Latics have beaten Manchester United and Liverpool, and run Chelsea very close on their own bidding. That Gunners also lost to QPR less than one month ago provided further hope something may just be available. But they couldn’t win, could they? Another three points against a top-four team would be too much to ask, wouldn’t it?
The night started on a low note as news filtered through that United conqueror Shaun ‘Only‘ Maloney would not be fit to take his place in the starting lineup. The man he ousted from the first team, Jordi Gomez, would fill the gaping void as Franco Di Santo’s support striker-cum-midfielder-cum-Jack Russell Terrier. As it happened, he did so rather well.
The match began at a frightful pace, with Arsenal firing three shots at the Latics goal within the first six minutes. Ali Al Habsi expertly palmed Yossi Benayoun’s strike over the bar to deny the Israeli yet another goal against Wigan, and you got the feeling this might just be a very long night in London. What transpired in the next three minutes, however, was nothing short of remarkable.
In the sixth minute of the game, Robin van Persie played in an average corner which James McCarthy was able to head clear with some comfort at the front post. Further good work from the Irishman ensured the ball found its way to Jordi Gomez just short of the halfway line, and Di Santo was already starting his marauding solo run into the opposition half. Gomez sprinted down the Arsenal right before playing the ball across three defenders straight to his Argentine team-mate, whose initial shot was only half blocked by Szczesny. The ball fell nicely for the ex-Chelsea man, who could volley home from close range for his first goal in what seems like months – probably because it was. The Emirates was stunned silence as Di Santo wheeled away with his team-mates to celebrate his fifth goal of the campaign, and boy was it richly deserved.
Incredibly, it was about to get even better for Latics. The Gunners barely had time to think before Victor Moses was causing problems for Bacary Sagna at right back, jinking his way past the Frenchman with an exquisite turn that would fool even the best of international defenders. Moses delivered the ball to James McArthur at the near post, but the Scot found himself crowded out by two Arsenal defenders. He did manage to squeeze the ball across the six yard box, however, and Jordi Gomez was waiting to bundle the ball home at the second attempt. Though Szczesny was equal to his first effort, the ball fell wonderfully for Gomez, who just had to tap home with his left foot.
If the Emirates faithful were stunned by the first goal, they must have been in shock at the sight of Little Wigan going 2-0 up within eight minutes. For Latics, it really was the stuff of dreams, a magical start they couldn’t have imagined in their wildest fantasies. But this was no time to relax, for the next 35 minutes would be some of the toughest this team have ever had to endure. Though James McCarthy and Gomez had efforts to make it 3-0, the home side soon had them well and truly on the back foot, setting up camp somewhere just outside the Wigan penalty area. Gary Caldwell first made a double clearance before Benayoun drew another top-drawer save from Al Habsi. This was even better than his first, an acrobatic leap topped with an efficient right-hand punch to send the ball over the bar.
By the 18th minute, Wigan already had eleven men behind the ball to prevent Arsenal’s ten-strong attack line from breaking through. The problem with having so many men back is that no matter how many times you clear the ball, you know there’s a good chance it will be coming straight back at you. Although Victor Moses had a bit of an effort, the Gunners were soon back in the Latics half and baying for blood. Unfortunately for the visitors, their two goal cushion did not last much longer as Thomas Vermaelen finally made the pressure count. Tomas Rosicky delivered a dangerous cross from the right, and the Belgian spied his chance to powerfully head home from 12 yards.
At this rate, Wigan would do well to see the game through to half time with their lead intact. Robin van Persie made Al Habsi work once again, while Djourou and Rosicky also spurned chances of a shot on target within the next ten minutes. In fact, the pressure would continue right up to the break, with Santos and van Persie trying their luck, but fortunately to no avail. Wigan could not break free, and though they stemmed the tide as the half wore on, the hosts simply would not let up. Latics managed to repel a couple of free kicks in threatening positions to cling on to their slender advantage as the referee mercifully blew for half time.
The second period, as one might expect, saw more of the same – the home side pushing with all their might, the visitors looking to catch them out on the break. But after an initial onslaught which saw another Santos attempt successfully cleared, Wigan did manage to claw back at least some control and enjoy a bit more possession. Naturally, 60,000 Arsenal supporters were well and truly on their case, abusing Latics for each and every semblance of time wasting they dared to exhibit. Ref Andre Marriner would not be swayed and kept his cards in his pocket, for the time being at least.
The game slowly began to open up as the home side threw absolutely everything they had into the search for an equaliser. Victor Moses was an ever-present threat on the right wing, and proved highly effective in one-on-one situations. He worked his magic to cut into the Arsenal area before firing across Szczesny, who did well to repel the Nigerian’s shot surely destined for the corner of his goal. Moses also engineered an even better chance, battling his way to a one-on-one with the Arsenal keeper, but could not steer the ball past Szczesny from just inside the area. Consensus is that perhaps another touch would have served him better on this occasion, but his effort on the night really cannot be faulted otherwise.
Cue more trading of shots; Aaron Ramsay headed over before Jordi Gomez did likewise with his (weaker) right foot. The sides also made a substitution each, with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Conor Sammon replacing Johan Djourou and Franco Di Santo respectively. Wigan’s joint leading scorer for the season left the pitch to a highly undeserved chorus of boos, as he had put in another sterling effort in the centre-forward holding role for his side. He did play for Chelsea, though, so he wasn’t ever going to get a warm reception in these parts of Greater London.
Momo Diame replaced Wigan’s other goalscorer, Jordi Gomez, shortly after as the game entered its final five minutes of normal time. With two pairs of fresh legs on the pitch, the real time-eating effort began in earnest as both subs played for the corners. Ali Al Habsi received a yellow card for deliberating over a defensive free kick far too long for the referee’s (and the crowd’s) liking, and you can’t say it was undeserved. Arsene Wenger certainly agreed, and went to great pains to ensure the fourth official added extra time for the Omani’s cynical exploits. It was a final kick in the teeth when he neglected to do so, but Arsenal’s frustration was summed up some eight minutes earlier when Figueroa pushed a rampaging Theo Walcott to the ground just outside the Wigan area. It was a clear yellow card offense, but Marriner declined to award even a free kick. This really wasn’t to be Arsenal’s night.
And so the final whistle blew with Wigan –specifically Sammon– in possession. They kept the ball effectively in the final ten minutes of the match proper and saw through a potentially nervy period with relative ease. The Gunners had given everything they had and more, but it was not enough to penetrate that resolute Wigan defence in the second half. The end result was that Latics had beaten Arsenal in London for the first time, and deservedly so. Despite some very ropey moments in the first half, they played well as a team, more than matched their opponents in every area of the pitch over the course of 95 minutes and left the Emirates great value for their three precious points.
This is quite possibly the richest vain of form Wigan Athletic have experienced since Roberto Martinez took over some three years ago, and my goodness is it timely. Whilst losing to Arsenal, Man United and Liverpool wouldn’t necessarily have relegated us by now, things would have been looking rather dodgy to say the least. Four wins in five games mean Latics now have a genuine chance of achieving safety before the final-day clash with Wolves, and nobody, not even the most optimistic of Ticsmen would have anticipated that even a month ago. “Beat Man U and Arsenal within five days? You must be delusional.” I guess there can great wisdom in positive thinking after all.
It must be reiterated that there is still much work to do. With four games to play, Wigan’s cushion to the dropzone stands at five points, but Bolton have two games in hand and that game at Ewood Park remains a crucial encounter. There are four teams still fighting to stay afloat, and you can bet your life they’ll be charging into their remaining games at full pelt in a bid to scrape vital points. The good news for Wigan is that their future is now in their own hands – match or better the results of QPR, Bolton and Blackburn and that dream of an eighth season in the Premier League will become a reality.
Next up is Fulham at Craven Cottage, and it promises to be a tough encounter. There again, considering Wigan’s recent form, points certainly aren’t out of the question. To ask for another win might be a bit greedy, but a consolidating point would be great against a team unbeaten in three games. The most important thing is to ensure we don’t get too carried away – this still ain’t over, folks.