How the Premier League was Tied:
Manchester United entered the game with a depleted back line, and they were forced to play Antonio Valencia at right-back and Evans and Gibson at center-back. Valencia was excellent, but the two center-backs both played poorly. Evans picked up an early yellow-card and was taken off at half-time, while the best clearance of the day fell to Nani. In fact, one Wigan counterattack saw Wayne Rooney playing left-back (Wigan’s right-forward nearly scored) and Evra center-back.
It didn’t matter. United were ahead after eight minutes through Park-Ji-Sung after a mazy run from Evra.
In the first half an hour Wigan couldn’t keep the ball and rarely tried. Instead, they played with three center-backs, soaking up most of Man-U’s attacks. The failure to clear the ball was reminiscent of Barcelona in El Clasico, although Wigan couldn’t clear it because there was nobody up top, while Barcelona simply refused to take the ball off the ground.
Valencia and Nani combined several times, even though neither was playing in his natural position. Valencia played as an attacking right-back, forcing Nani to move the middle.
Chicharito badly wasted a couple half-chances, and Wigan picked up a yellow card, but they calmed down after about 30 minutes and had a decent spell when they started to keep possession and neutralize the Manchester offense.
Wigan is known for its heavy losses to its better opponents (7-0 to Chelsea last season; outscored by more than 40 goals all-time against Manchester United), but was coming off draws against Chelsea and Liverpool. With 38 minutes gone, either a draw or a blowout looked possible.
Unfortunately, Wigan’s Sammon, who had missed what would turn out to be the Latics best chance, was sent off for an innocuous challenge. Caldwell was booked for arguing, Valencia whipped in a pair of dangerous crosses, and Berbatov scored, all within two minutes, and the rout was on.
The Bulgarian used great strength and good finishing to score, but it must be said that the defending wasn’t great: Alcaraz, Stam, and Al Habsi all had a chance to close the goalscorer down.
It would be hard to imagine the Sammon challenge being a red card if it had been committed by a Red Devil, at Old Trafford, but Wigan can hardly claim they would have won had the call gone differently. Most of the Wigan team was invisible during the first half.
A dangerous Wigan back-pass ended the first half, and United’s attention soon turned to the City-West Brom game, scoreless at the break.
Other upsets were in the air: Liverpool trailed by one at Blackburn, and Arsenal would draw the next day against Wolves, a club with a penchant for getting good results against top teams.
Chelsea had already drawn with Fulham. Chelsea’s results since the victory over City: draws with Wigan and Fulham, both of whom Man-U defeated 5-0; and a 1-1 draw with Tottenham- AVB won the tactical battle but it was pretty obvious that Chelsea are no longer any better than Spurs.
Villas-Boas has been changing his approach to a more direct one, and it paid off against Manchester City, but the manager faces questions once again after a disappointing draw. For the second time he made a defensive substitution while drawing against an inferior opponent, and he allowed Danny Murphy to be the best player on the pitch. Meanwhile, AVB continues to experiment with Mata and Torres’ positioning without success (can anything help Torres?).
What a club in chaos Chelsea are, with half their players rumored to leave over the transfer window.
Another half-time score: Bolton 0-0 Newcastle. Bolton, playing at home, were disappointing. Both goalies had one or two good saves in the first half, but Newcastle were dominating. It took an inspired substitution to turn the flow of the game. Ben Arfa, minutes after coming on, made it one-nil Newcastle. Within five minutes Newcastle got a lucky second, and nearly scored a third. Bolton didn’t have any offense, and succumbed, 2-0.
Wigan hadn’t been at all bad in the first half, considering that they were at Old Trafford, and were hanging on until the sending off. They came out with a change in strategy: letting United control the first two-thirds of the pitch and only pressing when the Red Devils got too close to the goal. Once again, soft defending let them down, and Berbatov, given far to much space, put a neat finish into the back of the net, and leaving SAF with a selection headdache for Man-U’s next game. On the rare occasion where he and Hernandez started together and Rooney was on the bench, he was much more involved than Chicharito and showed his finshing skills, but his passing was wayward. Rooney later came on but rarely got the ball.
One more point about Man-U’s lineup: Lindegaard, instead of the error-prone De Gea, started in goal. He barely had a save to make.
After 68 minutes more scores came in: Manchester City still hadn’t scored, but Liverpool and Everton, both surprisingly trailing, had found equalizers.
Meanwhile, the merciless Ferguson had put on two strikers for two midfielders. Neither Macheda nor Rooney made any difference, but United would find two more.
The first was a crazy strike by Valencia, capping off his Man of the Match performance against his old club nicely.
The second came on United’s umpteenth penalty appeal (the referee got them all correct). Berbatov completed his hat-trick by slotting past Al-Habsi, not an easy task, considering his impressive penalty save against Liverpool the previous week.
Alcaraz committed the foul, right on the line. He hadn’t had a bad game, but Wigan surely have to buy a defender during the transfer window.
Fergie still is unlikely to start Berbatov next week. The Bulgarian continued his frustrating habit of scoring all his goals in one match.
Goal difference is important this season though, for both United, as they chase the title, and Wigan, in yet another relegation battle.
Several minutes after the United game had ended, their players were celebrating once again, after Manchester City failed to score against West Brom. Manchester City now only leads on goal difference.
When we look back at the end of the season, this could very well be the decisive week.
Manchester United verdict: Can we play them every week? Berbatov has 8 goals in 10 games against Wigan; Rooney 10 in 14.
Red Devils’ next game: v. Blackburn, a great chance to put pressure on City, who have to play at Sunderland the next day, and host Liverpool just two days after that. The Manchester teams have to be aware of Tottenham, the only other realistic threat to take the title, seven points behind with a game in hand.
Wigan verdict: They need to put this game behind them, and fast. Having an in-form Hugo Rodallega is the next step in avoiding relegation.
Latics’ next game: @ Stoke, the team they beat last year to improbably avoid relegation.