It’s a very strange experience to hear ‘neutral’ pundits such as Jake Humphrey and David James ‘supporting’ Wigan during a live television broadcast. Bar the notable exception of the FA Cup Final, Latics build-up normally amounts to laughing at Owen Coyle’s choice of legwear and/or Dave Whelan’s broken le- see, I should stop talking about this as it will only encourage them. Instead, I shall get back to complaining about pies.
Nope, Wigan Athletic this evening enjoyed coverage normally reserved for the England national team by virtue of them representing the entire nation. Absolutely no pressure on Lee Nicholls, who made his European début this evening, then. Rubin unbeaten in countless consecutive games at Fortress Kazan? Gulp… best of luck, Lee.
After staying overtime to implement a touch of backroom Rafa Benitez-style squad rotation, Owen Coyle stood back from the noticeboard and dusted off his hands. The unlucky (lucky?) Nick Powell emerged a notable victim of this first XI hedge-trimming, though the Man United loan man *has* played more games than an artificially over-skilled custom player on FIFA Football. Don’t tell me you’ve never done it yourself!
As feared, the hosts slipped into an irresistible groove the quicker, passing into space with great expertise as if they were a Roberto Martinez side or something. Sure enough, they broke the 21-minute deadlock with a superbly-worked through ball that Oleg Kuzmin gleefully slotted past Nicholls, prompting certain television commentators to point an accusing finger in the general direction of certain parties. James McClean disappointedly exclaimed, “who, me?” But he know who was culpable.
Rip Van Latics awoke with a start upon making the startling discovery that Kazan were less proficient at defending high balls into the area. Grant Holt’s terrier-like ears were soon pricked at the prospect of some cheap, yet simultaneously valuable Euro strikes for his extensive CV. Two headed efforts followed, though distance from goal hindered the former Norwich goal-collector on both occasions.
You know you’re starting to threaten when Callum McManaman is being victimised – he must have left the field with red ankles and a shirt stretched dangerously beyond his tailor’s recommended limit. Referee Hüseyin Göçek’s hand hovered around his card-bearing top pocket, but stayed largely on the perimeter for the time being.
Pretty soon after, it was Powell time. He marked his introduction with a long-range effort which flew a few feet wide, but not a single Latics representative could be seen reprimanding him – up to the 70 minute mark, Wigan had fewer strikes than a post-Bonfire Night box of matches. Fortune followed him onto the satisfyingly high-quality turf in preparation for the ‘big shop’ trolley-full great push to come.
With Kazan hesitating to ponder an invaluable victory, the opportunities started to filter through for the visitors, now in full attack mode. Roger Espinoza delivered a second sensational cross from way out west, makeshift centre forward Thomas Rogne rose to execute the pinpoint header… right onto the crossbar. It was the closest the away side had come thus far.
As Wigan were now committing a miniature army forward, the hosts’ nerves became exposed for the first time. Momentarily, McClean flicked a ball across the face of goal and Fortune just failed to react in time to glance it home, prompting a chorus of ‘gahh’ from the 150 travelling Ticsmen. Would there be enough time to steal a late goal in broad dayl- erm, night light?
Well, not really. Jordi Gomez’s final minute free kick almost burst upon contact with Kazan’s rock-solid wall, and what remained of Coyley Time sank between the cushions of the dugout’s glorified car seats, never to be retrieved.
Like those annoying 8-ball fortune tellers, or a piece of toast buttered only on one side, this characteristically tight Euro encounter had fallen in the Russian side’s favour. But also like those 8-balls, Wigan’s adventure rolls on for another week of intrigue, speculation and the overwhelming urge to destroy something with a mallet. Well, perhaps the last one applies to the fortune teller a tad more than Latics.