Wigan Athletic, “relegation candidates” once more. Sigh. Just for once I would love to take my seat in the East Stand, fizzy beverage in hand, and enjoy a month of Latics matches without the lingering thought that a loss could send us spiralling towards a WWF-esque relegation fistfight. Just for once I would like to see us put together a good run early in the Premier League season, removing a certain amount of pressure from a potentially heart-wrenching final two months. (What do you mean we did that under Jewell and Bruce?)
I had rather enjoyed the past couple of games, not just from a Wigan point of view, but also because they were really good, balanced contests. I know some might disagree on that last point and it’s definitely far easier to say stuff like this if you’re getting the results. Just look how quiet things became around here during that nasty, seemingly endless string of defeats that began this time last year.
In fact, I shall indulge myself by repeating a somewhat colourful quote from my post-match ruminations on that 3-0 loss to Manchester City:
City’s squad(s) of superstars were wholly expected to hammer little Wigan into a soft, malleable substance ripe for a good kicking over the Ship Canal and back to the slums of urban Wigan. “You’re a disgrace to the Metropolitan County,” they would bellow while simultaneously balancing three footballs upon their tremendously-skilled heads and taking a great (brightly-coloured, hand-made) boot to what once claimed to be a football club.
One could easily attribute such a statement to Manchester United. Yes, the balance of power has undoubtedly shifted in City’s favour of late, their victorious Premier League campaign still fresh in our minds – too much so in the case of the red half of Manchester. But it goes without saying that United are still as dangerous as ever (Evra?), especially at the citadel that is Oldus Traffordum. Even with just a couple of kids and a stray cat watching, that’s one intimidating place to even visit, let me tell you.
Before today, Latics had played 7 times at Fortress Matt Busby. In those 650 minutes of football (not including Fergie Time), we had conceded 24 and scored just one – a Leighton Baines penalty. I talked enough about this on Boxing Day last year, so I shall save you the waffle (and pain), but it just goes to show how much Wigan have struggled there.
Today, however, was going to be different. Off the back of our first defeat of United just over five months ago (has it really been that long?), and with an injury-hit home lineup, surely it was time. No, not Fergietime, but time for Latics to win at Old Trafford.
Wigan went into the game unchanged from the side that drew 2-2 against Stoke two weeks ago – the previously suspended Antolin Alcaraz was absent once again as he picked up an injury on international duty. The hosts had their own injury concerns, and Ferguson decided he could not risk starting Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, though both were able to make the bench.
United started strongly, and could have been on the scoresheet within minutes of kick-off. Danny Welbeck successfully conned Michael Oliver into awarding a penalty, but Javier Hernandez could not convert it. Ali Al Habsi, who saved 50% of penalties he faced last campaign, guessed correctly, diving low to his left to punch clear the Mexican’s effort. Justice, as they say, was served – by Wigan’s own Judge Dredd. Hah, there’s a good Photoshop in that somewhere.
This proved to be the best chance for either team in the first period, though both worked scoreable opportunities as it progressed. Welbeck shot just wide of Al Habsi’s right hand post on 18 minutes, and headed over from mid-range six minutes later. Ivan Ramis could also have done better with his 23rd minute header, which went sailing over Lindegaard’s bar.
Wigan came more into the game in the second part of the first half. Whereas previously they had looked to slow things down and play at their own pace, their attacking threat increased when they got numbers forward. The visitors’ best opportunity came on 43 minutes when Aruna Kone could not make sufficient contact with Beausejour’s deflected cross at the back post. Wigan finished strongly, however, pressing the United backline to some effect.
Latics also began the second half brightly, threatening to create some good scoring chances in the opening four minutes, but things were about to unravel. Big time.
It all started with a Paul Scholes tap-in from just inside the six-yard box – the stone that started a landslide bringing back horrible memories of Old Trafford visits past. At this point, however, Wigan were still in with a good shout and actually attempted to rough things up in the centre of midfield. Against the might of Scholes, though, this was always going to be a losing battle and it wasn’t long before they succumbed once more.
Shaun Maloney was withdrawn around this point, and the visitors definitely lost their edge going forward as a result. But continue to press they did – after all, you’ll get nowhere defending at Old Trafford.
Latics were now looking very stretched at the back and the hosts were all too adept at exploiting this fact. From another dangerous foray forward, the ball pinballed around in the Wigan area for a bit before settling in the back of the net again. Hernandez was the beneficiary this time round, escaping the offside ‘trap’ and beating Al Habsi with a neat touch.
The game was over as a contest two minutes later, when Buttner somehow managed to squeeze the ball between Ali Al Habsi and his near post. The danger should have been cleared long before he received the ball, however, and it was looking all too easy for the home side.
Wigan’s collapse was completed on 82 minutes when supersub Nick Powell powered a spectacular strike past a helpless Al Habsi to cap an awful second half. Great goal, crap defending, as Geoff Boycott might have said.
I’m scrabbling around for excuses for that dismal second 45 minutes, but sadly I can find none. Wigan were all too often slow to clear and dwelled on the ball in defence far too much, which United lapped up. The midfield also looked decidedly thin when Jean Beausejour (who actually didn’t have the best of games) was replaced by David Jones, who didn’t seem up to the task in his half an hour on the pitch. It wasn’t just his fault though – there was a collective collapse that reached tipping point when the second goal went in. Too many wildly misplaced passes, not enough shots on target, you know, the usual gumph.
Oh well, it could have been worse. We could have lost 6-1 to Arsenal.
Prediction for Roberto’s post-match interview: “The important thing is that we don’t let it affect us too much because we really could do without a repeat of last season’s ‘performance’.”
And would you look at that – I’ve forgotten about today’s game already! Must be all those defeats to Man United that numbs you to the pain. Or the beer – that works, too. This would be a great time to go and thrash Fulham at home, wouldn’t it?
Scholes image licensed under Creative Commons by AtilaTheHun at Flickr.