Wigan saw their cushion to the relegation zone cut to just three points as Philippe Senderos headed the Cottagers to an 89th minute victory over a labouring Latics. After a cagey first half, the hosts dominated proceedings and finished the game great value for their three points. Although Emmerson Boyce had put the visitors ahead with an excellent strike on 57 minutes, Fulham retaliated immediately through Pogrebnyak and never looked back.
In comparison to recent hectic contests, the first half was a relatively serene affair. Both sides threatened, but not enough to warrant a goal; though Fulham edged proceedings in terms of shots on goal and possession, Wigan weren’t without their own chances. The biggest talking point of the half came in the very first minute, when Clint Dempsey was upended just inside the Wigan area by Gary Caldwell. Referee Lee Mason decided the challenge wasn’t worthy of a penalty, but I’m sure the 25,000 Fulham fans inside Craven Cottage would beg to differ.
Jordi Gomez, scorer of the winning goal at Arsenal, was responsible for all but one of Wigan’s first-half attempts. I don’t know if Martinez told him to shoot on sight, but he seemed eager to try and test Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal. Gomez did so on two occasions, but neither strike was enough to beat the Australian. Perhaps Wigan’s best chance fell to Victor Moses, who, after working his way into the Fulham are, just could not find the power and placement to challenge the keeper, who pouched it quite comfortably.
The host had their moments, and Ali Al Habsi had to be alert during Fulham’s frequent visits to his penalty area. Not to be caught out, the Omani was quick to smother anything that came close to the Wigan goalmouth, and first repelled Dempsey before safely catching a series of crosses (and one cross-cum-shot).
If the first period was relatively even, the hosts certainly had the better of the second. As the game progressed Fulham began to assert control, settling down into some decent possession. But their efforts were hampered by Emmerson Boyce’s fine finish on 56, a sweet right-foot strike into the bottom right corner of Schwarzer’s goal. Undeterred, the hosts responded in the best way possible – by going straight up the other end and chalking up an equally brilliant goal. Pogrebnyak’s snorter from outside the area left Al Habsi stuck to the spot, and the game was level within a minute of the restart.
From then on it was all Fulham, who were suddenly skipping past Wigan players with alarming ease. They were unlucky not have gone ahead shortly after their equaliser as Pogrebnyak narrowly failed to convert John Arne Riise’s cross, the ball crashing off the underside of the crossbar before spinning off the line. Was this going to be another fortunate afternoon for Latics? Al Habsi’s goalmouth certainly led a charmed life for the best part of 30 minutes; John Arne Riise forced the Omani into a save before the dangerous Pogrebnyak hit the woodwork once again. Although Wigan tightened their midfield in response, the introduction of Ben Watson could not turn the tide and the Cottagers continued to push for that winner. The Wigan defence, however, held firm(ish).
Just as Latics were beginning to smell an extremely useful away point, the home side finally broke through. Emmerson Boyce, hailed as the hero less than half an hour earlier, turned villain as he conceded a free kick in dangerous territory with under two minutes of normal time to play. Senderos rose to head Riise’s cross past Al Habsi and Fulham had a more than deserved lead. It proved decisive, as Wigan could not muster anything of note in what little time remained.
For the first time in a good few weeks, Wigan had been outplayed and it took mid-table Fulham to show the big boys how it’s done. Latics were hard-working as usual but experienced a great deal of luck – even Boyce’s goal had an element of fortune about it when the ball rebounded favourably for the Barbadian international. Fulham were the better team and 2-1 is a fair reflection of the afternoon’s events.
Latics could not bring influential figures like Shaun Maloney and Victor Moses into play. The former did not have the luxury of a full 90 minutes, coming back from injury as he was, but proved largely ineffective in his 35 minutes on the pitch. Perhaps the effects of such a tough run of games finally caught up with Wigan, but Fulham must take all credit for their victory, which they thoroughly deserved.
Three points is the gap to 18th, three games remain. Two of them are with Wolves and Blackburn, matches that may ultimately, as expected, decide the outcome of the relegation scrap. First, however, on-form Newcastle travel to the DW for what could be a highly important contest – a Wigan win could see them all but safe. But Bolton, who still have two games in hand, will have something to say about that. You see, there are so many permutations that you could easily be confused, so it’s best to concentrate on one’s own game. The good news is that, as I type, Wigan’s survival is still in their own hands.