Fairytale’s sad finale

Like every other ‘expert’ I wrongly predicted a Wigan defeat at Wembley last Saturday. Sadly, however, that fairytale was short-lived, with the shock Cup winners’ relegation from the Premier League confirmed by defeat at Arsenal last night. It is a terrible anti-climax for manager Roberto Martinez, chairman Dave Whelan and the fans but, I have to say, there was an inevitability about Wigan’s plight. As I said before the Cup final, Wigan’s Achilles heel is their defence, a weakness that Manchester City’s star-studded forward line should have been able to exploit. While I sympathise with Martinez – a lovely guy, by the way – who has a lot of injury worries, the fact is that, even with all players fit, his defence probably wasn’t sound enough. A statistic of 71 goals conceded in 37 games tells its own story. That is comfortably worse than Reading, who also went down. If you are going to ship that many goals, then you need to be prolific scorers – and Wigan are not. I think they are going to need at least two more centre-backs if they are to bounce back into the top flight next season.

Interestingly, Wigan’s final-day opponents this weekend, Aston Villa, also have serious defensive issues to address this summer, which is going to be a busy one for manager Paul Lambert. Lambert probably won’t have a big budget, but, contrary to popular opinion, his team isn’t as young as reported. And Villa’s goals-against column shows they have conceded just four less than Wigan have. That will have to be addressed if the team  - which doesn’t have as many teenagers in it as is being said – is to avoid another relegation struggle next season. If my former Everton and Manchester City centre-back Richard Dunne can make a comeback from groin trouble after missing the whole season, his presence will be a massive boost. But it tells you something when goalkeeper Brad Guzan is both the players’ player and fans’ player of the year. That in a struggling side and one which sports one of the most exciting talents around, Belgian forward Christian Benteke, who is already being eyed by some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League and Europe. With Darren Bent recently voicing his concerns about not getting into the team, I think Lambert is in for a hectic close-season, one way and another.

 

Martinez the master

Well, what do I know! Wigan produced one of the great cup final upsets today, but it must be said Manchester City simply did not turn up. Roberto Martinez won the tactical battle, playing three centre-backs and three midfielders, his players constantly backing off and forcing City inside, where they were, frankly, hopelessly ineffective.

To succeed against three central defenders you need to switch the play and exploit the space either side of the two wide defenders. City never came to terms with the challenge, with David Silva and, in particular, Yaya Toure so disappointing. And young Callum Mcmanaman ran rings around City’s Gael Clichy. Wigan actually only had the one on-target attempt, but what a goal it was from Ben Watson. City had a few goal attempts, but they had no tempo, no desire, from the start. I hate to say it, but it was the type of performance that gets managers the sack.

Not that I think that Mancini should go, not after delivering the Cup and the league title in the previous two seasons. He said that reports that he is to be replaced are rubbish and I hope he is right. Don’t forget, people even said Sir Alex Ferguson’s job was in danger in 1995, after Blackburn pipped Manchester United to the title and my Everton team beat them in the FA Cup final! But, if I was City manager today, I would be deeply alarmed by that display.

City’s pace the key

For the sake of massive FA Cup final underdogs Wigan, I’d love to cite the “magic of the cup” and predict a victory for them against Manchester City today. But I just can’t see it happening. For me, Wigan’s defensive woes are going to cost them at Wembley this evening when their injury-hit back line is likely to face the pace and trickery of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero.

City have the best defence in the Premier League and Wigan the joint worst. In a nutshell, Wigan’s problem is that their defenders, even when the first choice men are fit, are relatively slow. And Aguero is lightning fast, a player who is a slow defender’s worst nightmare and a man who could cause mayhem in the wide open spaces of Wembley. Obviously, until we see the team sheets, nothing is certain. But Wigan boss Roberto Martinez has an awful dilemma. Namely, does he risk a player or two who is not 100 per cent when he has two Premier League matches to come, matches which will decide if the club stays in the big-time. Scharner and captain Caldwell played in midweek and neither man is the quickest. Today, there is a doubt about Caldwell’s fitness, anyway.

Martinez reverted from two centre-backs to three late last season when Wigan staged a remarkable rescue act in the relegation zone. Today, he’s short of bodies and may have to rely on a holding midfielder in front of two central defenders to try to keep City’s attackers at bay. City, on the other hand, have failed to deliver the goals that might have retained the league title, despite the presence of Aguero, Tevez and Dzecko. They’ve drawn too many games when they were well on top. I think they’ve suffered in the absence of Nigel de Jong, their holding midfielder who left last summer. As a result, Yaya Toure, such  an awesome, attacking presence last season, has been more subdued this campaign. Nevertheless, I expect City to win by 2-0, at least.

As for speculation regarding City manager Roberto Mancini, I have to say nothing surprises me. People I speak to at City say the owners are patient, people who would recognise a second-place finish in the league and an FA Cup win as a successful season. At the same time, very high demands go with the bigger jobs these days.