Arsenal 4-1 Wigan
Arsenal secured a vital victory last night to ensure they go into the last game of the season, away to Newcastle, with their destiny still in their own hands. Although Arsene Wenger was immensely pleased with both the three points and his side’s display, it was a bittersweet victory for the Frenchman as the result also brought an end to Wigan’s somewhat miraculous eight year stay in the Premier League.
Wenger has great respect for Wigan’s football philosophy under Roberto Martinez, which in many ways is very similar to his own. Dave Whelan’s club do not have vast sums to spend in the transfer window and as a result have embarked on a recruitment policy which has seen them scour the globe to sign relatively unknown players from unheralded football nations, such as Honduras, as well as giving players such as Shaun Maloney an opportunity to flourish following their release by Premier League sides. Wigan’s lack of financial clout has also led to the club placing great emphasis on youth development, which this season has resulted in the emergence of Calum McManaman, who was instrumental in their incredible FA Cup triumph over Manchester City. However, Roberto Martinez’s most admirable quality was the way his side played their football. There was never an inclination to lump the ball in the air, or resort to rough house tactics, no matter how difficult a situation they found themselves in, Wigan would resolutely continue to play the game in the right way. In many ways they were an example for other emerging teams, that no matter the size of a club, or their transfer budget, it was still possible to produce a side capable of outplaying the best teams in the league. It is therefore a great shame that Wigan will no longer be entertaining the fans of one of Europe’s top leagues.
Tottenham’s late victory over Stoke at the weekend had placed a great deal of pressure on their North London rivals. It was a result which meant anything less than three points for the Gunners last night would have handed the advantage in the race for a top four finish, straight back to Tottenham. However during a pulsating first twenty minutes, Wenger’s team did not appear to be under any pressure whatsoever. The Gunners flew out of the traps, pressing Wigan high up the field, playing with an attacking verve which has been missing for the majority of this season. Theo Walcott in particular was excellent as he surged down the right flank time and time again, causing Wigan numerous problems. Santi Cazorla was also a real menace to the away side, cutting in from the left wing to support the attack. The Spaniard was unlucky not to hand the Gunners the lead within the first few minutes of the game as his header from Walcott’s cross flew agonisingly wide of the goal with Wigan goalkeeper Robles rooted to the spot.
However Arsenal did not have to endure a long wait before breaking the deadlock. In the ninth minute, Cazorla directed a corner to the near post but the Wigan defence did not react when both Mertesacker and Paul Scharner failed to make any contact with Cazorla’s delivery. The ball was allowed to drift into the middle of the box for the unmarked Lukas Podolski to stoop down and power his header into the back of the net. The Gunners did not rest on their laurels and continued to surge forward in search of a crucial second. However despite their dominance, Arsenal were unable to create clear goal scoring opportunities and were largely reduced to half chances and shots from long distance by a determined Wigan defence.
Bacary Sagna’s long range effort was going harmlessly wide, but the sliding Kieran Gibbs almost turned the ball towards goal, just failing to connect with the Frenchman’s shot. Laurent Koscsielny squandered Arsenal’s best opportunity to double their lead, six minutes before the interval. Once again a Cazorla corner caused Wigan problems, this time the Spaniard’s delivery was flicked on at the near post by Mertesacker. The ball fell straight to Koscielny, with the goal at his mercy, but the Frenchman could not find the back of the net.
Yet despite having started the game exceptionally well, Arsenal began to sit back towards the end of the first half and were no longer pressing Wigan high up the pitch. As a result, the visitors began to work their way into the game, passing the ball neatly amongst themselves and creating a few half chances of their own. Seconds before the end of the first half, referee Mike Dean, who made some curious decisions all evening, awarded Wigan a dubious free kick on the edge of the box. Shaun Maloney duly curled home a wonderful effort inside the near post. Although Szczesny would have been disappointed as he did get a hand to the ball, replays showed that while the majority of the players in the wall had jumped up in an attempt to block the shot, Podolski, had ducked slightly. The man who had given the Gunners the lead was therefore responsible for the equaliser as the ball sailed over his head before nestling in the net.
The goal clearly had given Wigan a lift and the visitors could have even taken the lead early in the second half, but for a fantastic save by Szczesny. A one-two between Maloney and Kone, saw the Ivorian wriggle free inside the box. The Arsenal goalkeeper immediately rushed off his line, making himself as big as possible to stop Kone’s effort with an outstretched arm. This was a crucial save, a Wigan goal at this stage of the game would have created an extremely tense atmosphere inside the Emirates Stadium. Even with the score at 1-1 the home crowd howled in derision at every misplaced pass, which was to the detriment of their team.
However Arsenal rose to the challenge and in the 63rd minute the Gunners retook the lead. Walcott’s searing speed and desire took him past Wigan’s defenders ensuring he connected with Cazorla’s excellent low cross, lifting the ball over the onrushing Robles and into the net. Five minutes later and the Gunners were further ahead, with Cazorla instrumental once more. The Spaniard’s header fell perfectly for Podolski, who had been played on-side by Scharner. Arsenal’s number 9 made no mistake with the finish, calmly lobbing the ball over Robles for his second of the night. The home side made sure of the three points and sealed Wigan’s doom in the 73rd minute, as Aaron Ramsey raced through from the left wing, ignored the option of passing to Podolski, who was free in the box, to fire past Robles at the near post for his first league goal of the season.
The Gunners fully deserved all three points and will now go into the final league game knowing a win will secure Champions League football for yet another season. In fact even third place is still up for grabs and also the possibility of a rare play-off game between Arsenal and Chelsea, if the Gunners beat Newcastle by one goal and Chelsea draw with Everton. For Wigan unfortunately the eight season long fairy-tale has come to an end. Fans of the beautiful game will surely wish to see them return to the Premier League as soon as possible.