Middlesbrough pulled off an extraordinary victory to upset Wigan's recent progress, emerging from long spells under the cosh to snatch an 89th-minute winner through Jérémie Aliadière after Wigan had done everything but find a way past Gareth Southgate's makeshift defence.
Wigan had dominated much of the contest, with Amr Zaki and Wilson Palacios key to a vibrant attacking performance. But scoring a goal proved beyond them, not least because of three outstanding saves from the former England Under-21 international Ross Turnbull in the last 10 minutes, behind a defence in which the centre-backs Chris Riggott and David Wheater were magnificent.
It was their work that stifled the threat posed by Emile Heskey as he tried to impress the watching England coach Fabio Capello, and by the in-form Egyptian striker Zaki, seeking to add to the five goals he already has in the Premier League. Southgate, as a former central defender, was thrilled. "As a 23-year-old, Ross has been under the spotlight because of his age," he said. "That's his first clean sheet and he thoroughly deserves it. It was the kind of game where the centre-halves get an opportunity to do their job and stand out. Our two are both very good in the air. I thought Chris Riggott, just coming back into the side, was excellent."
Southgate had been concerned about his side's effectiveness as an attacking unit after the frustration of watching them rack up more than 20 goal attempts without scoring in going down to West Bromwich Albion at home last weekend. This time it was getting the ball anywhere near their strikers that was the problem, until Aliadière had his moment. A week of intensive finishing practice could be said to have paid off, in that the Frenchman's strike ended with a goal from almost Middlesbrough's only chance.
Yet with with Emanuel Pogatetz still suspended and Andrew Taylor and Robert Huth both ruled out by injury, Southgate must have feared for his makeshift back four as Wigan's athletic midfield seized early control. Lee Cattermole, eager to make his presence felt against his former club, ran Palacios close as his side's man of the match, although he might have been a shade lucky to escape with only a caution after launching himself into a 50-50 challenge with Mohamed Shawky midway through the first-half.
Zaki, his status growing as the home crowd's new favourite, almost gave them another moment to celebrate three minutes before half-time but by then Steve Bruce, the Wigan manager, was sensing an afternoon of frustration. "After we didn't score in the first 30 minutes I felt it had 0-0 written all over it," Bruce said. "To their credit Middlesbrough defended very well and sometimes in football you don't get what you deserve. Their centre-halves were outstanding."
It seemed only a matter of time before Wigan's pressure brought some reward. Yet Turnbull saved at full stretch from substitute Jason Koumas after a diagonal run by the Welsh international had taken him past four opponents, then pulled off a point-blank block from Heskey's flick before charging out to block at the feet of Wigan's second substitute, Henri Camara.
But as Wigan's defence, in which Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner had rendered Mido and Afonso Alves ineffective, began to drop their guard Middlesbrough stole victory.
Stewart Downing, who was moved inside late in the game, used his head to steer Didier Digard's cross into the path of Aliadière, who had also been pushed towards the centre from a wide position, and the former Arsenal player swept the ball into the bottom right-hand corner to give his side their first away success of 2008.Reuse content