On May 11, Manchester City have the chance to rescue some silverware from a pretty dire season by their standards.
Opposite them will be a Wigan team that has a deserved shot at glory after fighting against the odds year on year. One side is backed by billions of pounds, the other struggles to keep its head above the water. One team contains Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero. The other Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and Emmerson Boyce.
City will be massive favourites, but Kompany and company should beware a Wigan side who can spring a surprise or two.
The most impressive attribute Roberto Martinez has harnessed in his side is the courage to play good football, no matter who the Latics come up against. Playing a 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid, the expectation would be that the three-man defence would be pulled apart by better teams; however, because Wigan look to win and keep possession just like the top teams, they avoid having to defend a siege on their goal.
If the players are on form Wigan can upset bigger and (allegedly) better teams, as the 3-0 win against Everton at Goodison Park in the sixth round demonstrated. And, of course, who can forget the fantastic run the Latics went on last season where they beat Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal in the final couple of months.
There is little chance that Martinez will send his side out looking to contain and play for set-pieces. Tonight’s match against City is the perfect dress rehearsal, although the manager maintains Wigan need to continue their impressive form to ensure league survival.
“We’re not going to hide the fact we have to achieve our aim in the league to feel we have had a successful season," Martinez told The Sun. “I’m not going to deflect from that and try to hide behind the fact our FA Cup campaign has been a real success. The season will not be a success unless we achieve our aim in the league.
“To carry on reaching the targets we want to get — that’s on the pitch and off the pitch — we need to stay in this league.
“But the FA Cup final is an added success and represents a lot.”
With their underdog status and with Premier League survival the main aim, the Wigan players can walk onto the hallowed Wembley Stadium turf free from pressure. They know this will not make or break their season, and with two league games still to come after the final there are further opportunities to end the season on a high.
City, on the other hand, have very little else to play for except the FA Cup. A trophy-less season could undermine Roberto Mancini and will give more energy to the rumours of a change in the Etihad Stadium hotseat. Expectations will rest heavy on City shoulders, although that should not
really trouble the majority of their medal-winning squad.
So, Wigan can play their natural game, but what about individual battles? Starting from the front, Arouna Kone will need to have a good game if Wigan are to offer an attacking threat. Kompany and Matija Nastasic will prove a more formidable centre-back pairing than Millwall’s in the semi-final; however, Kone has the power and pace to cause problems if there is space to attack.
Maloney and McManaman are tricky wingers who might find joy in isolating Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta, who can find defensive support lacking at times.
In midfield, Wigan will have to contain Yaya Toure, and David Silva is likely to be back to flit between the lines. Wigan’s three central midfielders are hard working and they should look to cluster the middle of the park and force City to play down the flanks.
Unless Edin Dzeko is on the pitch City’s frontline does not offer much of an aerial threat, but the danger is if City change up their game and Wigan do not react quick enough. Chelsea showed how a change of shape can unsettle a previously serene defensive line, but equally Wigan may feel they are more direct in their attacking play on the counter than City were on Sunday.
It’s a long shot, of course, but there have been upsets in the cup before and there will be again. On their day Wigan have showed they can shock anyone, and Manchester City have been very Jekyll and Hyde this season.
On paper Wigan should have no chance but, thankfully for Martinez and his men, cup finals can do strange things to even the best of teams.
At least Wigan can be sure to have every neutral on their side come May 11.
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