Why can’t we do it? Every time Wigan look to be making any sort of progress, something comes along to check it, as if to prevent us from becoming the slightest bit comfortable. Heaven forbid Wigan Athletic become complacent.
Last week’s draw at Craven Cottage provided a superb base on which to build, to regain some form that might give us a fighting chance of survival this campaign. But just as defensive talisman Ivan Ramis was settling back into the first team, he sustained a season-ending injury in a seemingly tame challenge with Dimitar Berbatov.
All of a sudden, Wigan were transported back to mid-December when defenders were a rare commodity this side of the River Douglas. That blind panic and disorganisation at the back returned with a vengeance as the Black Cats tore Latics to little pieces in an abysmal first half of what can barely be termed ‘football’.
The game began wonderfully for the hosts, who finished a smooth passing move by forcing the ball into Sunderland’s net via an unnamed body part belonging to David Vaughan. Ronnie Stam chipped a little ball goalwards, and under considerable pressure the defender somehow poked it past his own keeper. The stadium announcer gave the goal to James McArthur, but he was fooling nobody – it definitely had that ‘own goal’ feel about it.
Then began Sunderland’s dominance, and an extended period of pressure which saw the visitors ultimately secure all three points. After going close from two set pieces, they were handed (heheh, geddit?) a penalty when James McCarthy blocked a Sebastian Larsson free kick with his forearm. Craig Gardner converted it with ease, to the great delight of 4,800 travelling Sunderland supporters.
Riding the crest of a wave, the visitors soon doubled their tally through Steven Fletcher, and in the space of fifteen minutes Wigan had gone from leading to looking an already beaten side. Though they endeavoured to get back on level terms, it was all a bit insipid going forward, really.
Just as Wigan were in sight of that precious half time whistle and a much-needed regrouping, matters became far more worrying. Adam Johnson sent the ball towards the penalty spot, Gary Caldwell missed his header and Fletcher was there to finish clinically. He scarcely screws up from such close range.
The introduction of Roger Espinoza, combined with the fact Sunderland were now very content to let their opponents play the ball amongst themselves, ensured the second half fell much more in the home side’s favour. Now experiencing some time on the ball, they set about repairing the extensive damaged inflicted in a truly awful first 45.
Shaun Maloney so very nearly pilfered the goal Wigan sorely required four minutes into the half, but Mignolet dived low to his left to deflect the Scotsman’s well-placed strike past the post. And Maloney, who has just signed a new 3-year deal, was integral to much that his side did well throughout the half, switching from the right wing to the left as needed.
Latics were improving, but things would only start to click into place upon the introduction of Angelo Henriquez. Maloney again went close, shaving the outside of the post from a free kick a few yards outside the penalty area. Time was ebbing away, however, and Wigan were once again struggling to work their way through a populous Sunderland back third.
By the 79th minute, the home side were completely bossing possession and looking likely to score at any moment. Pity it took so long for this to happen, eh? But there was still time to scrape some sauce from the very base of the bottle, especially as Henriquez had just headed home Maloney’s inch-perfect cross. With just over ten minutes to play and Wigan in the ascendancy, that once-impossible draw was now an outside possibility.
The hosts gave absolutely everything they could muster in the time remaining, and their dominance and effort probably warranted an equaliser. Maynor Figueroa momentarily sent a trademark unstoppable piledriver goalwards, and I still have a vision of it flying into the top right corner of Mignolet’s North Stand net. Alas, it sailed just wide of his post.
The Sunderland penalty area played host to a siege as Wigan went all-out for a point, perhaps even more. The visitors’ defence remained resolute and unbroken, however, even throughout a very tense five minutes of stoppage time. Full time, and unfavourable results elsewhere confirmed what Latics fans feared – their side were back in the relegation zone.
A crazy first half ultimately cost Wigan any genuine chance of a much-craved three points. Without Ivan Ramis to effectively commandeer the defence, those oh-so-familiar problems made for another disappointing afternoon at the back.
One suspects Martinez will hold off signing a replacement while he waits on the fitness of Antolin Alcaraz. Reports suggest he may retrurn for Stoke a week on Tuesday, and my goodness do we need him back at his best.
We may not have Ramis or Kone for the forseeable future, but there are a couple of things to cling on to. Shaun Maloney is in imperious form, and on his day can trouble even the best of Premier League defences. Secondly, though Angelo Henriquez is still in the very early stages of his career in England, he must surely now be a viable partner to Franco Di Santo to offer extra firepower up front.