It’s somewhat surprising to me that historically, Fulham at home hasn’t been a fruitful fixture for the mighty (though sometimes scrawny) Wigan Athletic. You see, usually we bear a grudge against teams we just haven’t been able to beat – Manchester United (of course), West Ham, Preston and so on. Ah, a statistical goldmine, that PWU Podcast.
Fulham is a different situation altogether. One senses a more jovial atmosphere between the clubs, with friendly banter free of pointless ‘big club’ or ‘we’ve got more superstars’ arguments that last until early Sunday morning. Of course there is the history – just think back to 1996-1997 when Latics edged out the Cottagers to claim the Division Three title on goal difference. Plenty of cause for rivalry there, you might think, but nope.
Today’s opponents have undoubtedly had their revenge since then, winning the past eleven league fixtures against Wigan before today’s showdown. These humblings somehow slip under the radar when that ‘difficult teams to beat’ question is raised in your pub quiz. Funny thing is, it’s generally a close contest but the visitors always seem to come out on top, through skill, luck or divine intervention. Sadly, this particular meeting between the two followed much the same script.
Today marked the return of an old friend, one Hugo Rodallega Martinez. It was pretty much written that our sometime golden boot winner would score this afternoon, but would he celebrate?
Well, the afternoon’s most pertinent question, at least initially, was answered on 31 minutes when Hugo converted Dimitar Berbatov’s Stam-style cross to give Fulham the lead. Respectfully, Rodders did not react, repaying the round of applause he received from the home faithful upon his entry. But you can’t say his goal hadn’t been coming.
The visitors were the better side in the first half, creating far more chances and causing the opposition keeper much cause for alarm. In fact, it was somewhat surprising that it took half an hour for them to capitalise on Wigan’s defensive, shall we say, slackness. The ball crept just past a helpless Al Habsi’s post on more than one occasion, and Fulham must have racked up at least a half-dozen corners before their first goal hit the net.
However, an initially sloppy Wigan found another gear, and could have equalised before half time through Jordi Gomez. The Spaniard saw his strike smash the underside of Mark Schwarzer’s bar and back into Aruna Kone’s path, but it did not fall well enough for him to get a strike away. Ben Watson’s subsequent effort went sailing over the bar, and Wigan went into the break 1-0 down.
The hosts enjoyed a great majority of the possession following Hugo’s header, and actually created a few decent chances. But that resolute Fulham defence continued to hold out, even repelling a fantastic Aruna Kone opportunity which saw the Ivorian go one-on-one with Mark Schwarzer. Soon after, substitute Mauro Boselli poked wide when it looked easier to score – James McCarthy had initially drawn the save, but the Argentinian somehow squandered his chance. And what a chance it was.
Boselli’s miss was made all the more costly when the Cottagers stole another goal from pretty much the next attack of the game. Hugo did not score this time, but was instrumental in creating an opportunity for Damien Duff to double Fulham’s lead. It was always a danger, as even though they did not see as much of the ball, the visitors were certainly looking threatening on the break. A pretty good away strategy if ever I saw one.
Fifteen more minutes passed, and still the Fulham brick wall held firm. Miyaichi and McManaman (yay!) were sent into battle as Martinez went all-out attack in search of a way back into the game, but the problem remained: there were just too many men blocking off those routes into the penalty area.
Latics finally hit the scoresheet through Aruna Kone, but with only two minutes of stoppage time remaining, was it too late? The hosts had one final chance to equalise with a free kick right on the full time whistle, when Ali Al Habsi came storming up the field to join the 18+ men packing the Fulham area – “just get the ball in there, and it could go anywhere”. As it happens, the ball was headed out for a corner, but that was that. Time up.
To wrap things up in a tight, early Christmas package (yeah, they have some of those in the Moon already, but I digress), Fulham played the better game and deserved their points. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Wigan could have won, though – one can only speculate how things would have transpired had Boselli converted his chance… so I shall. The crowd and team would have been lifted and the three points would have been up for grabs.
Alas, Wigan’s finishing was not all it could have been. I note that both sides had nine shots on target each, so I suppose you should say the visitors were more clinical with their opportunities. Indeed, Wigan might have benefited from the inclusion of an injured Franco Di Santo, who had to pull out with a last-minute calf injury. That Latics played much of the game with one recognised ‘striker’ might indicate a problem in itself, but was Boselli really ready for a Premier League start?
Just to cheer us all up, there is one other incident worth discussing: referee Lee Probert was sandwiched in a tackle involving Watson and Steve Sidwell, resulting in a recuperation period of about three minutes. Although it looked like Mr Probert would have to be substituted for fourth official Mark Halsey, he limped away none the worse for his travails. As such, it was flipping hilarious. Watch out for that on Match of the Day, if you dare to tune in.