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Wigan preview: Playing with fire, again

Roberto Martinez will need to find more answers to keep Wigan in the first division.
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wigan Athletic performed another great escape last season, surviving on the last day of the season with a win at the Brittania. Here is FOX Soccer's look at this year's chances for survival.

Wigan stayed up in the top-flight thanks to Hugo Rodellega’s late, last day goal against Stoke, giving the Latics a final day win with a moment that serves as one of their season's only highlights. That said, most neutrals will have felt justice was done. The Latics were far from sloggers, and how they came to be in such dire straits had not been easy to explain. This was a team that played almost everybody tough all season with an attractive and expansive brand of football, yet near misses turned potential wins into draws (and draws into losses).

When Sunderland hung a 4-2 defeat on them on April 23, there were four matches left, and nobody could say for certain whether Wigan would continue its life at the top, given the difficult final month the laid ahead for the Latics. The home stretch began with Everton cashing in a late Leighton Baines penalty to take a 1-1 draw, and when the Latics were held by the same score at Aston Villa, manager Roberto Martinez's men were staring squarely at the drop.

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
PRESEASON PREDICTION

 
PL CLUB
16 Wolverhampton Wanderers
17 Norwich City
18 Wigan Athletic
19 Swansea City
20 Blackburn Rovers


There are only so many times Wigan can tease the drop before being caught by its wrath. Given how squads sit with the season about to start, FOX Soccer's editors and writers see Wigan as relegation fodder.

 

And for that reason, perhaps the most important goal of the year was not actually Rodallega's at Stoke. Instead, the goal that may have ultimately put Wigan on a course for survival was the one scored in stoppage time by Charles N'Zogbia in the season's penultimate match. It was a fight for survival with fellow strugglers West Ham United, and Wigan trailed 2-0 after 26 minutes. N'Zogbia tossed them a 57th minute lifeline before Conor Sammon leveled matters in the 68th minute. When N'Zogbia scored at the last gasp, Wigan supporters went wild, West Ham went down and the Latics had everything to play for at Stoke. A season that had begun so horribly - back to back home thrashings, 4-0 by Blackpool, then 6-0 by Chelsea - eventually finished to cheers.

Survival was vital for a club which exists in the shadows of some very famous area rivals (Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United are all nearby). The Latics even has to fight for attention in its own city, with Wigan's Rugby League side a perennial title challenger in an area of England which reveres that form of football.

WIGAN SQUAD WATCH

 
MOST EXCITING The words “exciting” and “Wigan” are rarely used in the same sentence.
MOST VALUABLE Ali Al-Habsi
BEST ACQUISITION Al-Habsi (Bolton)
OTHER INS David Jones (Wolverhampton)
LOSSES Steven Caldwell (Birmingham City), Jason Koumas (out of contract), Mauro Boselli (loaned to Estudiantes)
PROSPECT TO WATCH Callum McManaman
 

Since their arrival in Premiership (2005), there have always been questions over whether the Latics can last the course. It's not a big club, not a hugely rich operation, but it has become a team known for picking up little-known foreign players and getting big production. Consider that for that final game at Stoke last season, Wigan fielded 11 players from eight different nations, only one of them England. They had a Barbadian, a Scot, a Peruvian and a Honduran in the starting side - hardly places where BPL clubs are known to troll regularly for talent.

But Wigan's strength at developing talent is also its Achilles' heel. Staying up comes with the price of competing every year. Roberto Martinez likes the depth of his roster, but the scouts are always watching, and as Wigan players grow in stature the club often loses them to richer competition.

The depth the Spanish coach touted will have to be on display from the get go, with the Latics having already suffered multiple key losses. Tom Cleverley's back at Old Trafford, his season long loan ended with the triumph at the Brittania. The club's best player, Charles N'Zogbia, is now one of Aston Villa's best players, and Rodallega, a Colombian international, could also be on the block as he and admits an interest in moving to a bigger BPL side. Irish international midfielder James McCarthy is also thought to be on the radar of clubs seeking his type of work rate.

RIVAL WATCH

 

The Latics are unusual in that they don’t really have very many fierce Premier League rivals, partly because they spent so many years in the wilderness, with many Wigan fans also supporting one of the big Manchester clubs. Ironically, their biggest antagonist is the rugby club they ground share with. That team, the Wigan Warriors, are the current Super League champs — something their fans never miss a chance to remind the soccer fans about.

 

Wigan has made one significant move this summer, signing Ali Al Habsi to a long-term deal, thereby ensuring that they will keep one of the most talented keepers in the league; however, given the former Bolton-man was in goal for Martinez last season, getting him on the books does nothing to improve Wigan's chances at survivle.

With questions remaining as to who can be kept, Martinez may not know who to build around until sometime in September, but with N'Zogbia already gone, Martinez will have to completely rework his attack. Does his exit mean that Rodallega will no longer have the necessary space to work? And what of Conor Sammon, the Irish international, who also has been part of the front line?

The defense should be above average, mainly because of the athletic Al Habsi, a man who makes ridiculously difficult saves with apparent disregard for his own personal safety. He usually keeps Wigan in matches by pulling off one or two "did you see that" stops in every match, covering the fact that the back four anchored by Scotsman Gary Caldwell is not quite as tight as might be desired.

AUGUST FIXTURES

 
DATE TIME OPPONENT
August 13 10:00 A.M. ET Norwich City(live, FOXSoccer.tv)
August 20 10:00 A.M. ET at Swansea City (live, FOXSoccer.tv)
August 27 10:00 A.M. ET Queens Park Ranger (live, FOXSoccer.tv)
 

Senegalese midfielder Mohamed Diame, Honduran Maynor Figueroa and Paraguayan Antolin Alcaraz have flourished at Wigan and should offer even more this season, but getting complementary pieces around them will be challenge. Until Martinez knows who's going he cannot begin the job of replacing them.

Diagnosis

Wigan flirts with relegation every season, but they have done so with a fair bit of panache and more than a dollop of good fortune. As last season's start suggests, when Wigan is bad they can be very, very bad, but the Latics always seem to be able to shrug off a drubbing and go into the next match with renewed vigor. N'Zogbia's scoring threat was a big part of that, and replacing him will be necessary to keep Wigan above the drop.

None of the newcomers from the Championship look like they have the capability to automatically stay up, so it would not shocking if this season follows last year's pattern, with Wigan among six or seven teams playing the final month of the campaign under extreme pressure.

Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.

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