Latics edged out Blackburn to seal their survival with a game to spare thanks to a powerful 87th minute Antolin Alcaraz header. Though the visitors dominated the first half, they could not make any of their excellent chances count against an insipid Rovers. The hosts, requiring a win to remain in the hunt for a place in next year’s Premier League, launched a spirited second-half effort to grasp control of the game. They were denied a decent penalty shout when Boyce appeared to hack Hoilett to the ground, but referee Mark Clattenberg was unsighted due to the sea of bodies and rapidly deteriorating climactic conditions. Having soaked up the Blackburn onslaught, Wigan came back strongly in the final ten minutes and Alcaraz cropped up with less than four minutes to play to head home Beausejour’s corner at the back post.
Results since Wigan’s last match meant that a draw would effectively see them safe. We are all too aware, however, that there is great danger in playing for a draw, as we have witnessed numerous times this season in countless games throughout the Premier League. Martinez is ever conscious of this, and abandoned any thought of such a strategy long ago, perhaps as far back as his debut season as manager of Wigan. With Rovers also in need of a result, it seemed there was no way the game would finish goalless.
With no injury worries whatsoever, Latics could once again stick to the winning lineup that had served them so well in the past month. Brimming with confidence off the back of a spectacular 4-0 victory over Newcastle, they resumed business as usual, imposing themselves on the game from kick-off. Latics quickly seized control of midfield, harassing and haranguing Blackburn like lions around a carcass. Their first great chance came on 8 minutes, when Franco Di Santo skipped over two defenders before attempting to whip the ball across Paul Robinson, but the ex-England international could pouch the Argentine’s effort with relative ease.
Antony Modeste attempted a not-at-all modest Cisse-esque volley from way outside the area, but it went sailing over Al Habsi’s bar and Wigan were soon back on the attack. Franco Di Santo had a difficult chance just inside the penalty area as the ball came in from the left, but could not prevent his effort from ballooning into the upper tier of the stand behind Robinson’s goal. The visitors continued to come forward, however, and Victor Moses was afforded another Latics shot on target before the half hour was up. Chasing a seemingly lost cause, he cut his way from the sideline into the penalty area, but no Wigan men seemed to anticipate the Nigerian’s marauding run and he had no choice but to go for goal himself. Robinson neutralised the threat, but troubling times abound for Rovers.
Moses soon found himself with an even better opportunity, the most likely yet, on 36 minutes. Franco Di Santo delivered a pinpoint cross from the right touchline to find the solitary Moses in a sea of three defenders, but the former England U21 man could not direct his header goalwards, instead sending it across the face of the 6-yard box for Rovers to clear with ease.
The first 40 minutes of the game passed by without any great threat from Blackburn, and a nervous Ewood Park had remained relatively quiet. The 4,000 travelling Wigan fans were making themselves heard, however, even if their team could not find that finishing touch – chants of ‘we shall not be moved’ often drowned out the ripples of anti-Kean/Venky’s sentiment amongst the home faithful. Wigan remained on top until the half time whistle, and but for the odd free kick conceded in dodgy territory, had an easy ride through to the break. But the second stanza, you felt, would be a whole different story – the hosts had to improve, or they would certainly be relegated this evening.
The teams were a few minutes late returning from the tunnel when the paramedic was called to Blackburn’s dressing room to tend to Gael Givet. For a moment there were worries that it may be something more serious than the hamstring injury which prevented him from taking his place on the pitch again, but thankfully it was nothing cardiovascular or respiratory as Sky Sports originally feared.
When the home side did take to the field, it was with renewed vigour and increased urgency as Rovers set about working themselves back into the game. Their play was an improvement for sure, but the visitors continued to repel everything they could muster and the game soon became stretched, with Latics threatening on the occasional break. To add further spice (and plenty of juice), the rain was now hammering down on the already very greasy Ewood surface to make heavy work of passing. Rovers dealt with it better initially, negating this potential pitfall with a battery of high balls into the Wigan area.
Blackburn’s endeavour almost paid dividends on 52 minutes, when Wigan were made to scramble a Yakubu effort off the line. From another Rovers corner, Scott Dann nodded the ball back across goal for the Yak to get away a volley seemingly destined for the back of the net, but Jean Beausejour was in the right place to shin the ball away and clear of danger. It must have stung, but the Chilean had just preserved Wigan’s clean sheet for that little bit longer.
The home side continued to power forward, urged on by a now supportive home crowd who smelled blue and white blood. They were almost rewarded just moments later as yet another Wigan goalmouth scramble could have yielded positive results for Rovers. As it happened, they were left ruing their horrible luck as Junior Hoilett was undeniably chopped down just outside the six yard box, but referee Mark Clattenberg remained unflinching. As the Ontarian set himself for a certain shot on goal, Emmerson Boyce gave him a swift kick in the back of his heel for what seemed like, as they call, a ‘stone-waller’. Replays showed, however, that Clattenberg’s view of the incident was obscured by Marcus Olsson, surely the only reason why he didn’t point to the spot. Be it through poor ref positioning or just pure good luck, perhaps a bit of both, Wigan had well and truly dodged a bullet.
The temperature inside Ewood Park escalated as home fans launched their most vociferous anti-Venky’s chant yet, and the on-field end-to-end action was cooled only by driving rain that threatened to turn the contest into a scrappy, old fashioned Lancashire derby of seasons past.
As Blackburn’s desperation reached a peak, the anticipated long balls into Wigan’s area were now becoming as frequent as the chicken-related jokes trending on Twitter. Such tactics, however, no matter how necessary, often tend to leave you open at the back and yesterday evening was no exception. Despite a concerted defensive effort from Wigan, Victor Moses was on the prowl deep in opposition territory as usual, and caused more than a few Blackburn heart palpitations when he went down inside the penalty area on 70 minutes. Thankfully for Rovers, Clattenberg was eagle eyed on this occasion, noticing that Moses threw himself to ground a bit too easily. Now, I’m not saying Victor is a diver, but this one was pretty blatant and more than deserved the booking it warranted.
The next ten minutes saw the hosts launch a final invasion of the Latics half. It was prolonged, and resulted in more than a few nervy moments for the Wigan defence, but Gary Caldwell had his defensive line well organised by this time. Al Habsi, too, was sprightly and eager to play his part, commanding the penalty area with a comforting assuredness in these tense, telling moments.
After a period in which Blackburn came at Wigan with breakneck speed and panic-induced furiousness, the visitors began to earn themselves some possession. Having been run ragged in the first half and playing themselves into the ground during the second, perhaps the Rovers tank was running low on (vegetable oil) fuel. Whatever the case, Latics were now winning the ball in midfield and intent on playing the game at their own, deliberate pace. Our old friend Mr Moses was soon skipping past Blackburn defenders once more, and forced Paul Robinson into a scrambling double save – the visitors were again posing a real threat, maybe their greatest yet.
As if to confirm the shift in balance of power, Latics went close again some minutes later through Shaun Maloney. Emmerson Boyce sent in a telling cross from the Wigan right, but the Scot slightly mis-timed his jump and the subsequent header went agonisingly over Robinson’s crossbar. But you felt something was coming, and with less than 6 minutes of normal time to play, it would almost certainly be decisive.
The excellent Franco Di Santo, who had played a role in all areas of the pitch for 85 minutes, was awarded a rest when Conor Sammon entered the fray for an obligatory cameo. His fresh legs would give the Wigan push an extra dimension, and Conor certainly played his part in irritating the Blackburn defence and helping play out the remaining time.
Latics wanted more than just a draw, however – their survival could be sealed mathematically here and now against an ailing Blackburn Rovers. Moses sent another dangerous ball across Robinson’s bows, and Sammon was less than a yard away from poking the ball home for what would now surely be the winner. Beausejour received the ball on the opposite wing and sent the ball back into the danger area, but with Moses still hanging around the back post, Blackburn could afford take no chances and cleared for a corner.
Moments later, the visitors would finally seize the opportunity to ensure safety. Jean Beausejour delivered the corner from the right, and Antolin Alcaraz rose highest at the back post to meet it. As the ball reached his goal line, Paul Robinson stuck out a hand to take the sting out of a strong header, but it was already too late – the ball had crossed the line and come to rest inside the goal netting. Wigan had made the 87th minute breakthrough against a weary Blackburn, and as a six-man Latics pile-on ensued, it slowly dawned that the fate of two north west neighbours had been decided in that moment.
The remaining seven minutes of play saw both Ewood Park and Blackburn’s resolve empty quicker than Venky’s at closing time. By the final whistle, those that remained were either partying Latics fans or angry protesters keen on making themselves heard. The situation at Rovers is a sad one, and it’s never pleasant to see such ill-tempered disagreement between fans and management. One can only hope, for the sake of Lancastrian football, that things are resolved and Blackburn take their rightful place in the Premier League once more, preferably at the first attempt.
We all have our own views on the state of Blackburn Rovers, but one thing Latics fans can agree on is how amazing a turnaround we have seen at Wigan Athletic in the second half of the season. We’re currently purveying a brand of pleasant, consistent football fans have been waiting almost three years to see, and whilst last night doesn’t necessarily represent the very best of Wigan’s finishing credentials, it was good enough to see us through. In the Premier League, that’s all that counts.
Most astonishingly, Wigan will retain their place for the 2012-13 Premier League season. From rock bottom of the table in mid-March, when I’d have been more than happy with just a chance to stay up come 3pm on Sunday 13 May, a remarkable run has seen us safe even before the Wolves game. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that, but some excellent football and a little bit of luck have guided us through to the fantastic position we are in.
And so Sunday, which always promised to be a tense relegation battle, may become party time. One more measly win would keep us in 15th, a place and one point ahead of last year’s performance; a final record of 11 wins, 10 draws and 17 losses would, ironically, match Blackburn’s achievements of 2010-11. Wolverhampton Wanderers, however, have fought for two well-earned draws in their previous games and will play with the freedom of knowing exactly where they will finish no matter what happens. Granted, that position is 20th, but I wouldn’t expect them to be quite the pushover that suggests. Having said that, I do think Wigan will win in front of a near-full house.