Greater Manchester is just some 500 square miles, a compact hub in the heart of England. The DW Stadium sits just a half hour’s train ride west of the Etihad. But the gap between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic is better measured in light years.
Tuesday night, Wigan dropped a must-win game at home to Swansea, collapsing in such spectacular fashion that there are now serious doubts about the Latics’ Premier League survival. The final team in the drop zone and a full three points off Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich with two games to play, Roberto Martinez’s side needs to win out and get help — or face next year in the depths of the Championship. But before it faces Arsenal and Aston Villa in its final two games, Wigan gets to face the buzzsaw that is Manchester City for one of England’s biggest trophies: the FA Cup (live on FOX, Saturday, noon ET)
The Latics were heavy underdogs even before Tuesday’s collapse, but given the way Wigan self-destructed against a weakened Swansea side, few observers are giving it a chance against one of the best teams in the Premier League.
The problem is that Wigan’s defense is a shambles. Honduran Roger Espinoza was forced to play as a makeshift left back Tuesday night after injuries to Antolin Alcaraz, Ivan Ramis and Maynor Figueroa kept that trio out. He looked it, bracketing a superb goal with a series of ham-fisted errors. And it gets worse: Ronnie Stam — who made one of the shortest substitute appearances possible, limping off injured after 15 seconds, may have fractured his leg.
The Latics’ frailties were mercilessly exploited, with Swansea pouncing on errant crosses and forcing Wigan to panic. Swansea’s winner, a bouncer by Dwight Tiendalli, was created whole cloth by Wigan’s back line. Martin Tyler, sitting down the row from me, correctly called it "suicidal."
That’s not expected to be much use against a full-strength City side that confirmed Champions League play next season with a dominating show over West Brom the same night. Carlos Tevez put on a clinic while Roberto Mancini rested eight starters, obviously with an eye on City’s lone remaining chance at silverware. Only Joe Hart will be out for the game as Costel Pantilimon has been City’s first-choice keeper in cup competitions.
How the Latics will deal with Tevez — to say nothing of Sergio Aguero and David Silva — is open for debate. Joel Robles is preferred in goal to the gaffe-prone Ali Al-Habsi, but no keeper can thrive when his teammates put him under continuous pressure. Consider that on Tuesday night, Robles was forced to have his entire team camp out on the goal line after Gary Caldwell needlessly back-passed to him inside the area. Alarmingly, an indirect free kick from 8 yards out turned out to be one of the lesser dangers Robles faced on the night.
Wigan does have the desire to play soccer the right way: It is patient in buildup, has deft passers and looks to prise teams apart. The Latics’ fundamental problem is a lack of talent. Their passing shows desire but not skill, and when teams force them into a central channel, they are easily knocked off the ball and blunted. Of the bunch, only Arouna Kone looks to have a nose for goal, but he is easily reduced to firing in from long range.
All of this has left Wigan seemingly unable to pull off what had become an almost yearly ritual: the late escape from the drop. It never has been great in the Premier League, but it has won fans with a commitment to style and annual Houdini acts. But Tuesday’s debacle now means that what might have been one of Wigan’s finest weekends is now shaping up to be its latest letdown.
The Latics face a reality in which they could win their first ever FA Cup final and wake up on Monday effectively relegated from the Premier League to boot. And if — or when that comes to pass — the distance between tiny Wigan and the Manchester giants will grow even greater.