I awoke this morning with an uncomfortably familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was an uneasy sensation of impending doom tempered by just a hint of hope, vaguely similar to the adrenaline rush experienced when bungee jumping off a large cliff. No mistake, it’s the hallmark of a relegation six pointer, the lifeblood of many a Wigan Athletic junkie in Premier League seasons past.
It was difficult to underestimate the importance of today’s encounter, a fact reflected in an uncharacteristically negative BBC Sport preview. I would post a link here, but there aren’t enough health warnings on all the nation’s cigarette packets to prepare you for it. I advise you to refrain from a bit of cheeky Googling or your New Year celebrations may well be destroyed two days early…
Among the doom and gloom heading into a third game in the space of eight days, there was much to be thankful for – that oh-so-rare beast fullus strengthus had once again been sighted roaming the dusty plains of Springfield. Reports filled local papers that the Ram Raider had emerged from early hibernation to make his social media début, courting suggestions of a return to the first team.
To everyone’s considerable pleasure, Ramis stood side-by-side with Gary Caldwell in the Latics starting XI as the clock ticked over to 3PM. I commented last week how it was great to have the captain back, but the Spaniard’s return today was even more comforting – one can track Wigan’s downfall back to the last game in which he took part. Without the Ram, it hasn’t been quite the same.
Predictably enough, it was the aforementioned talismanic centre back that struck the game’s first blow with less than four minutes played. He rose unmarked to gobble up a free header from Jean Beausejour’s corner and seize control of the game for his side almost immediately. If ever there was an indication of how much we’ve missed him, this one moment was it.
Latics immediately sought to capitalise on the goal, to build a winning score as soon as possible. A chance to double their tally almost materialised just minutes later as the Shaun Maloney soap opera aired its next instalment. The ball was laid off to the Scot, who retrieved the ball a yard inside the Villa touchline. Though he succeeded in keeping the ball in play, Stephen Ireland’s outstretched leg prevented him from going on to deliver a telling cross. Whether contact took place in or outside the area is academic – the referee saw no infringement. Further fuel, as if it were needed, for the PWU fire.
“If you get contact, it is not a dive.” — Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, again booked for diving this afternoon.
I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this matter.
Maloney soon had the opportunity to make amends and grab a goal for himself, but leant back on his strike from 16 yards out to sky a shot far over the bar. Villa could only watch as Kone subsequently worked another opportunity on the opposite side of the area, but luckily for them, he also blazed over. It was as though the hosts had failed to take their place on the pitch for 30 minutes, and Wigan were only a good cross and referee’s decision away from a huge lead already.
However, as the conditions deteriorated, so did Wigan’s ball retention. Villa experienced a similarly dominant spell as the half drew to a close, but were just as wasteful in front of goal. Though they had the ball in Al Habsi’s net on 36 minutes, the strike was ruled out for offside against Benteke. But the hosts, now spurred on by the home crowd, were getting closer by the minute. With the rain making it difficult to execute two successful passes in a row, Wigan would have been relieved to hear the half time whistle.
Villa resumed where they had left off, but again it was Wigan that struck first. Emmerson Boyce, back in that now-familiar right wing back position, powered his way past one defender before laying the ball off to Arouna Kone. The Ivorian duly obliged, setting him up for the strike from just inside the area, with highly satisfactory results. Boyce fired his right footed strike across Brad Guzan and into the back of the net to more than settle a few Wigan nerves.
The second goal began another period of Wigan dominance, and unfortunately for the visitors, this one would be terminal. On 56 minutes, Kone linked up fantastically with Franco Di Santo, who played him into a one-on-one with Guzan. The keeper made an unsuccessful attempt to win the ball, and all that remained was for Kone to finish in the open goal. He simply could not miss, and he did not – Wigan had a three goal cushion.
The onus on the hosts, Paul Lambert made a triple substitution in a desperate bid to change fortunes. It worked to an extent, as the remaining 25 minutes or so was their best period of the game, but Wigan were now increasingly content to defend their lead. Villa created a few nervy moments for Latics, but were unable to find any potency in the final third. I suppose conceding fifteen goals in two and a half games is bound to affect your confidence in front of goal, but equally you could say Ramis and Caldwell did well to prevent any easy chances.
Somewhere in all of this, Wigan could have increased their lead. A quick-thinking Al Habsi booted a long ball up to Arouna Kone, who muscled past a defender to take a touch as Guzan came racing towards him. His second was less productive, sending the ball tantalisingly out of play for a goal kick. If only he had opted to shoot… but now we’re getting greedy.
It certainly wasn’t a vintage Wigan performance, but when you win 3-0, who cares? Most importantly, they came up with the goods when it really mattered once again. I daresay Tuesday’s showdown with league leaders Manchester United will be much tougher, but one feels there is yet more in the tank. Caldwell and Ramis have had games to knock their bat in, while further suspensions for McCarthy, Di Santo and Figueroa have also been avoided, so perhaps another upset is on the cards.
So Wigan finish a successful year on a high. On 1 January 2011, most expected Wigan to be competing in the Championship this season, but, against the odds, the town continues to host Premier League football. Here’s to more of the same well into 2014 and beyond. Happy New Year.