Football: City set up for the Maine chance

The Play-offs: Wigan fail to maintain the momentum after a first- minute goal: Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester City 1 Barlow 1 Dickov 76 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 6,762
PAUL DICKOV'S equaliser 14 minutes from time ensured that two sides approaching the Second Division play-offs from opposite directions will go into the second leg on Wednesday all square, but with City in pole position to reach the final.

The fact that it took them all of 76 minutes to recover from the earliest of shocks to their promotion ambitions will have given City a healthy respect for opponents who have arrived at the climax of the season full of momentum.

That was the way Wigan started this match, even if they owed their lead to a crass defensive blunder after only 19 seconds. Gerard Wiekens' backpass caught Nicky Weaver unprepared and Stuart Barlow merely had to nip into the communication gap between them and prod the ball inside the post.

The City supporters, including several dozen without tickets who had vaulted over the perimeter fence shortly before kick off and 9,000 more watching on the big screens at Maine Road, were seeing all their revived optimism turn sour before their eyes.

For Wigan, it was shaping up as a most memorable farewell to Springfield Park, the old ground on which they were playing for the last time before moving to their new, state-of-the-art stadium a few streets away. "We went at them and if our quality had been a bit better, we would have got a few more goals," said their manager Ray Mathias, of a first half that had City profoundly worried.

Even during a second half in which their manager felt they fell well below their best, Latics had chances through Andy Liddell and Graeme Jones, plus a penalty appeal that could have turned into a second disaster for Wiekens when Liddell's shot appeared to strike his arm.

Wigan approached this game as a club aiming to go higher than ever been before, building on the belief acquired after their Auto Windscreens victory at Wembley last month that football can thrive at a high level in a rugby town. City, by contrast, still feel that their rightful place is among the elite - although for a long time yesterday, they showed little idea of how to propel themselves in that direction. The few exceptions only served to underline it. Michael Brown hit the bar after one incisive run and Shaun Goater had a couple of close range half-chances. They also saw a free-kick from their acknowledged danger man Terry Cooke, deflected just over the Wigan bar.

The fact that this was the only meaningful contribution from a potential match-winner was a tribute to how well Wigan policed him. Indeed Manchester City did not make their breakthrough until after Joe Royle had made the difficult decision to replace Cooke, and Brown had shuffled across to use the right flank in his absence. His low early cross found Dickov, who met it perfectly and tucked it past Roy Carroll without fuss.

"It was the sort of thing he used to put over the bar," said Royle of a player who has been so frequently on and off the bench himself during his City career. "But he's worked very hard on his finishing; precision finishing rather than power finishing."

If everyone's finishing had been of the same standard, Royle implied, City could have been going back to Maine Road with a handy lead rather than just home advantage.

"It wasn't the best of starts, but I thought we recovered very well, he said. "Territorially we were on top, and apart from those few seconds I thought we were the better side."

Gareth Taylor missed one inviting chance and Tony Vaughn could have headed City in front deep into injury time. "Hopefully they will think it's all over, said Mathias. "We'll be going there to show them that it's not."

As Joe Royle will tell his players, it should not be assumed that a bear- pit atmosphere at Maine Road on Wednesday will intimidate and overwhelm Wigan. After all, they have recently been to Wembley, were there heavily outnumbered by Millwall's raucous throng, and still managed to come away with the prize.