Wigan Athletic 2 Blues 3 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 08 December 2009 By Richard Barker

Any away win is obviously important, but even more so this weekend with the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool all dropping points, meaning that Blues gained ground on top spot and the Champions League places.

To use an old cliché, it was a game of two halves - the first half and the second half. Wigan led 1-0 at the break, but by the full-time whistle Blues had picked up all three points following a ten minute burst which saw three goals.

Wigan deserved their lead at the break, after growing into the game. The opening proceedings were fairly even, but Wigan gradually began to get a foothold, with the fluid movement of Charles N'Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega (who was arguably lucky to stay on the pitch after a stray elbow caught Roger Johnson, whose reaction was comical) and Paul Scharner behind Jason Scotland pulling the Blues defence all over the place. Scotland still doesn't have a Premier League goal to his name, but is as good as anyone when it comes to holding the ball up.

One Blues defender in particular was struggling, that being Liam Ridgewell. Wigan play N'Zogbia on the right despite being the most one-footed player since Dele Adebola, and he's a constant menace cutting inside. He also hogged the touchline, meaning that on a number of occasions, Ridgewell was too narrow and Wigan could find N'Zogbia in space with too much ease.

As I've said, N'Zogbia is as one footed as Heather Mills, and anyone who has seen him on more than two occasions should know that if you keep him on his right foot, he'll be about as effective as a Cumbrian bridge. However, Ridgewell seemed unable to do this, and kept letting him shift inside onto his left, which eventually resulted in Wigan's opener. Whilst it was a fine strike, it was all too easy for N'Zogbia.

Having been bright enough previously, Blues suddenly looked to crumble and suddenly Wigan were all over them like a nasty rash prior to the break, "roared" on by the franchised home support who have taken to football in the past four years since Wigan's rugby league team have become rubbish. Most of them think Springfield Park is where Bart and Lisa Simpson play on the swings, rather than Wigan's home ground about ten years ago.

Blues hung on until the break, however, and were able to regroup - and regroup they did.

The second half started and Blues came out with real zest and purpose, with Cameron Jerome a particular catalyst. The equaliser came when Lee Bowyer cleverly won a free-kick after having turned down a blind alley. Seb Larsson took the free-kick from wide on the left, and it was one of those that you stress to the taker that you get the ball inswinging and dropping between the posts and anything could happen. Larsson duly obliged and when Scott Dann missed the ball by inches with his head, Mike Pollitt was left stranded and the ball sailed into the far corner.

A few minutes later, Blues were ahead and Wigan were visibly stunned and heads were dropping. Bowyer flicked a clever ball forward beyond the Wigan defence, and Christian Benitez was on it in a flash, outpacing Titus Bramble (whose pace is about his only attribute). Benitez's shot was half stopped by Pollitt, but looped up and bounced into the back of the net to send an impressive travelling support into a bit of a frenzy.

Even frenzier was the mood another five minutes on when Larsson made it 3-1 with his second goal from a free-kick. This time he was much closer and it was a shot, rather than a cross, that he curled up and over the wall and beyond Pollitt inside the near post. Larsson's first half performance was probably worse even than Ridgewell's and he had looked to be continuing his mediocre form of this season, before two goals that will hopefully give him the confidence to return to the type of displays we saw two years ago.

Wigan's players were clearly and understandably deflated, although as the game progressed, Blues again got a little sloppy and began conceding too much possession. A minute before time, Stephen Carr cleared poorly and Wigan were back at Blues and (like Blues) were awarded a fortunate free-kick within range. Jordi Gomez scored to set up a nervy final few minutes of injury time, but Blues stood strong and Wigan didn't really test them as they'd have hoped. The one thing that I would comment on again is that Blues had two substitutions left to make and could have used these to kill some time, but failed to do so. I've raised it the past two weeks, and Blues have won, so I'm the idiot really, but I do fear that one week we may regret it.

I'm often critical of Cameron Jerome (mainly his finishing, heading and hold-up play) and there have been a number of critics of Benitez emerging of late. Neither are without their faults - that's clear to see. However, what is also clear to see is that Blues' current fine form has coincided with the two of them being picked together up front. Whilst they do have faults, the benefits that they are currently bringing to the team are greater. The players behind them know that they have two willing runners up top, so balls into channels or beyond the defence won't just easily be dealt with by the opposition. With Jerome and Benitez there, the game is stretched, meaning that the likes of Bowyer, Larsson and James McFadden (who was excellent again) can drop into gaps in front of the opposition defence and Blues' play is naturally brough forward 20 to 30 yards, which has to be a benefit.

Whilst lone target men with decent hold up play have their advantages too - like a Jason Scotland, Kevin Davies or Bobby Zamora - Blues don't have anyone near that standard. As such, when you play, say, Garry O'Connor there, 75% of the time the ball is lost and is coming back at you within seconds, and the remaining 25% of the time, O'Connor is 50 yards from goal and lacks the ability to link up the play, so Blues' whole system and play becomes predicatable, slow and unthreatening. Alex McLeish has now stumbled upon a system that allows Blues to be really threatening a long way up the pitch, and the two forwards deserve a lot of credit for that. Indeed, you do have to wonder if McLeish has any regrets about the first seven or eight games of the season when he employed a different system and results weren't as impressive, although in his defence, Jerome was injured and Benitez had one or two early issues in settling.

Another point worth noting after this game is those two words that are beginning to crop up - "feelgood factor". On the pitch, it's evident that there's a tremendous team spirit, evidenced in all sorts of ways. Whether it was the way that Blues players all joined in when Johnson was caught by Rodallega, and then all took it upon themselves to have words with Johnson to try a calm him down, or the way in which Dann clattered through Rodallega a few minutes after the incident as if to say, "you're not getting away with that". Also when Blues score now, and I know this sounds bizarre, but it's like the goal celebrations mean something - everyone's involved and diving on top of one another. Finally, at the final whistle, Barry Ferguson was the first player over to the Blues fans, before hugging every single one of his teammates - he was clearly delighted, and this is someone who has won about 86 trophies in his career. He and James McFadden (not normally the most expressive of characters) even had a little dance together on the pitch, although whether that related to the evening's activities they had planned in Glasgow, who knows? Regardless though, it was a pleasure to see so many players pulling together so much. There's an argument that it's down to the "Britishness" of team, but whatever engenders it, it's very, very refreshing.

It'd be remiss of me not to mention the "feelgood factor" amongst the fans too. There's no doubt countless factors - better results, better football, change of ownership - but there's a sense of the fans beginning to get the bug back. As mentioned above, there was an impressive following at Wigan, and it was like Blues' "glory" days. People were clearly out to make a day of it, fans were drunk and after each goal they were falling over one another and ending up several rows in front of their own seat, they were storming down the steps to celebrate, one got on the pitch to celebrate with Benitez, there was noise and passion and everything. As much as it was refreshing to see the players as they were, it was even more refreshing to see the fans in the mood they were in.

The change in ownership has clearly played a part, and as I've said a few times, in the long run we'll have to see whether it is a positive or negative thing. However, all those at Wigan will agree, no doubt, that in the short term, it's been a real, real bonus and it does feel as if "our Blues" is returning. Long may it continue.

As a final comment, with home games against West Ham and Blackburn to come, it'll be interesting to see how Blues cope. Such home games, as fans, we'd normally expect to do well in, but now we'll have a nation of pundits and bookmakers making Blues clear favourites, and it will naturally change the team's mentality - it won't be about going away and getting under the opposition's skin or playing at home and almost treating it in the same way. Blues now have to take the game to the opposition, and we'll have to see if they can cope. Three weeks ago, people looked at five upcoming games (Fulham home, Wolves away, Wigan away, West Ham home and Blackburn home) and thought they all looked winnable. In truth, we'd probably all have taken nine points from those five games. We've got that already, and genuinely, it is not unreasonable to expect to get fifteen now. It'll still be tough, but it's perfectly do-able (and Everton away after that shouldn't be feared either). If Blues could win those two games, it'd be a huge, huge fillip, but eyes shouldn't be taken from the prize - even if we lose both, Blues will still be in a better position than anyone would have imagined four months ago.

If the fans can help make the two home games more like the "old Blues" games though, like they did at Wigan, there really should be nothing to fear.

Nou Camp, here we come...