Forget what happened in 2012, the Premier League season starts right here. All that has gone is mere preliminary for this, the second set of fixtures, the latter half of the campaign, the time when Wigan traditionally arrive on the scene to put themselves into contention for survival. Let’s get it on!
*Rips open extra large virgin bag of Walkers Baked*
Kone-less Latics set up with an extra defensive midfielder in David Jones, who slotted into his usual position behind the two James Macs. Franco Di Santo would lead the frontline, aided and abetted by support striker-cum-midfield dynamo Shaun Maloney to complete what seemed like a full(ish)-strength starting lineup.
The visitors made a good start, with Shaun Maloney and James McArthur getting away strikes in the space of a few minutes. Neither were on target, but there were plenty of good passing interchanges to offer hope of a goal. Better yet, Latics were snapping at the heels of Fulham’s defenders, picking up the odd misplaced pass to create openings throughout the half.
It was a very even opening 45 minutes, but Fulham edged proceedings going into the break. They applied the pressure with a good spell around the 20 minute mark, the crowning glory of which was Giorgos Karagounis’ unstoppable strike. His right-foot effort from just outside the area found its way past three defenders, cannoned off the inside of Al Habsi’s right hand post and over the goal line to put Fulham ahead in spectacular fashion. One can blame defensive uncertainly all one likes, but there isn’t much you can do with such an accurate shot.
Franco Di Santo should probably have got an equaliser late in the half, which Wigan finished in the ascendency. Emmerson Boyce provided the dangerous cross, which Di Santo ran half the penalty area to meet, but fired over Schwarzer’s crossbar from the edge of the 6-yard box. Would Kone have done better? It is a moot point, as he is probably many miles away, playing solitaire in a hotel room somewhere.
Wigan started the second half strongly, too, looking busy in the opposition half and wresting back some possession in search of an equaliser. A deflected Maloney strike made Schwarzer stretch to clear, the closest Wigan had come to scoring thus far, and with Latics streaming forwards, one felt it was now only a matter of time. But then I said that about the Bradford game, and we all know what happened next.
Jordi Gomez and Hugo Rodallega entered the field of play, the former replacing workhorse David Jones in an attempt to give Franco Di Santo some support. The Argentine was becoming increasingly frustrated, but never once showed signs of giving up. If anything, it spurred him on to greater things – momentarily, he took an excellent touch before firing marginally wide of the post. Something was definitely percolating.
On 71 minutes, the almost inevitable happened. Jordi Gomez won one of his trademark soft free kicks on the halfway line, and the ball was quickly moved forward to Di Santo. He bided his time as he lurked menacingly just outside the area, spotted his chance and powered a shot past Mark Schwarzer’s extended arm. Finally, parity.
The visitors sensed victory. Pushing the hosts right back into their own penalty area, they won a string of corners on the left hand side. Many were comfortably dealt with, however, and Wigan’s pressure was mostly borne out of efficient midfield pressing and possession. No more clear cut chances were forthcoming, but there was plenty of time for Fulham to mount a late victory charge.
Latics were still a bit rocky defending set pieces, even if the home side’s free kicks had been somewhat lacking in direction. From one particularly dangerous corner, the ball rebounded off a few legs in the Wigan area, but could not fall for Dimitar Berbatov to tap in from 6 yards – well done Emmerson Boyce, you cleared well on this occasion.
Then, on the stroke of 90 minutes, disaster. Not a goal, but what looked like a serious injury to Ivan Ramis, who tweaked his knee in a challenge with Berbatov. He thumped the ground in frustration, screaming “why me?” The Spaniard did not retake his feet, but held his head in his hands as he was stretchered from the field of play, dejected. No, just no.
It could have been even worse for Wigan, who almost let Fulham in for the winner with less than two minutes of stoppage time to play. Bryan Ruiz beat Al Habsi, but not Figueroa, who preserved his team’s point with a superb saving header from right on the goal line.
These events, which all took place in the final six minutes of the contest, shifted the game’s complexion one way then the other. Latics would have felt aggrieved not to be ahead, then after the sheer deflation of an injury to your defensive talisman, the mood would have been lifted by Fig’s fantastic header. In fact, for this alone I shall award him the JWAW Man of the Match, for what it’s worth (very little, but hey).
Results haven’t necessarily gone Wigan’s way today, but this point takes them out of the relegation zone on goal difference. It is a small margin, but a huge psychological boost in what is likely to be another close relegation battle. I shall wait to see what happens with Ramis’ scans before I pass judgement on how successful an afternoon it has been – is it really worth a point to lose such a figurehead for the remainder of the season?
Craven Cottage image courtesy Nick (CC2.0). All others by JWAW (CC2.0).