I don’t usually get nervous before Wigan matches, but leading up to 4:10 pm on Sunday, I was feeling quite apprehensive about the ninety minutes that lay ahead. Judging by the performance of the players, I suspect they were subject to a lot of nervous tension too.
For a team renowned for significantly upping their game when the pressure is really on and thriving under adversity, Wigan’s performance on Sunday was quite uncharacteristic. The team seemed very cagey, and unwilling to try expressive moves, particularly in the final third, to open up QPR. In Martinez lingo, they “failed to impose themselves on the opposition.” Which is a fair analysis of the game.
However, the match didn’t start in this manner. Tension seemed to relax a little at kick off, with the opening twenty minutes being a fairly open encounter. Both teams exchanged counter attacks but generally failed to find a killer ball to create a real opening. The closest either side came was when Loic Remy hit the post, but even that was a long range effort out of the blue. Wigan were growing into the game and looked fairly comfortable until the major event of the game on 21 minutes.
Despite Alan Parry initially commenting on how Gomez had ‘made the most’ of a challenge from Zamora, what had actually occurred was a blatant sending off offence. Although Zamora was challenging for the ball, his foot was very high and caught Gomez with some force in the face. After consulting his linesman who was very close to the incident, Phil Dowd correctly sent Zamora off. With QPR down to ten, many thought it would be curtains for them. However, I actually think the red card was to the detriment of Wigan.
Following the sending off, the pressure was really on Wigan to get the win their numerical advantage should logically lead to. Wigan have thrived under the title of underdogs for years, now the situation was different, and I don’t think they had the mental strength to deal with it.
Tactically, the red card meant that QPR were happy to defend deep and become very difficult to break down. Wigan’s tense mindset meant that for all their possession, they struggled to penetrate QPR’s defence like a more composed team might have done. Far too often the ball was slowly passed from side to side in front of QPR’s defence and midfield until it was cut out. With Andros Townsend and Loic Remy acting as effective outlets, QPR looked a threat on the counter and this created the pattern of play for the remainder of the game.
The red card also changed the mindset of the crowd, whilst the home support seemed fairly subdued and timid to start with, the red card gave them a villain to unite against: Jordi Gomez. So often a scapegoat for Wigan supporters, QPR misplaced their frustration of a possible defeat and looming relegation onto him. It didn’t make much sense as a logical choice, it was hardly his fault that he got kicked in the face, but it united the home crowd and made the atmosphere more of a challenge for Wigan. QPR had now adopted the underdog mindset by going down to ten men, and it seemed to help them as the pressure was now off, they were expected to lose, so it allowed them to play with a little more freedom and less tension.
By half time, QPR were happy to go in at 0-0 and regroup during the break. Wigan had probed around the QPR half and had the majority of possession but failed to convert it into goals. Callum McManaman went close with two long range strikes and James McCarthy forced a low save from Julio Cesar, but no clear cut chances were carved out.
As the game went on without a goal, it looked increasingly like one goal would snatch it for one team. However, the longer the game went on, the tenser Wigan grew, and the less it looked like the away team would get the opener. I was hoping this would turn out to be like the Blackburn game at Ewood Park last season, when a late Antolin Alcaraz goal settled a tight game. Although I feared it would actually turn out like the Charlton away game of 2007, when Darren Bent’s late goal settled a relegation tussle Wigan aught to have won.
James McArthur had the first and only clear cut chance when he headed a left wing cross straight at Julio Cesar. In my nervous state I feared that would come back to haunt us. QPR had already threatened on the counter attack and this proved to be a precursor for the opening goal.
From a Wigan free kick on the edge of QPR’s box, it was a criminal situation to concede from. After Maynor Figueroa’s shot was blocked, the ball broke for QPR due to a very unfortunate rebound from Wigan’s perspective. Stephane M’Bia attacked with only Paul Scharner back behind the ball, despite his best efforts to shepherd M’Bia away from goal and the help of several Wigan players darting back, M’Bia fed Remy who unleashed an unstoppable finish from the edge of the box. Rangers were ahead.
Seeing the ball fly past Joel Robles and crash into the net was a truly crushing moment. I know it’s a cliché, but time did seem to stand still as the ball flew through the air on its way to the top corner. I couldn’t help but fear that could be a hugely decisive moment in our season.
Then Wigan threw men forwards, and displayed an urgency that was inexplicably lacking in the previous 85 minutes. Half chances came and went, before what was surely the most emphatic moment of the season.
Stephane M’Bia foolishly felled Shaun Maloney on the edge of the box with the Scot seemingly going nowhere. Maloney had let Gomez take the last one and wasn’t feeling generous enough to pass this opportunity onto the Spaniard this time. In a now-or-never moment, Shaun majestically lifted the ball over the QPR wall and managed to make the ball dip under the cross bar but tantalisingly close to Julio Cesar’s finger tips. It was the moment of magic Wigan had lacked for the previous 93 minutes which finally undid QPR’s defence.
Whether a point is much use to either team is debatable, but the despondent expression of Harry Redknapp as Wigan’s bench exploded into celebrations following the goal was enough to suggest QPR are as good as down. Wigan’s fate is yet to be decided but Martinez’s men will have to severely up their game to get results against teams of higher quality.
I hope your heartbeats have returned back to normal, I’ll see you at Wembley.