Empty seats sign of Wigan's survival priority

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The Independent Football

Dave Whelan will spare no expense following Wigan's attempt to overcome Arsenal in tonight's Carling Cup semi-final first leg, but then, when you're a multimillionaire holidaying in Barbados, you can afford to accept the charges on a transatlantic call from the JJB Stadium.

Most Wigan supporters need to show more restraint at this time of year, however, and so the manager Paul Jewell's insistence on making Premiership survival the priority will be borne out when the first semi-final of the season is played out against a backdrop of empty seats.

The Wigan chief executive Brenda Spencer, who will be making regular mobile phone calls to inform the club's benefactor and chairman of developments, is anticipating a gate of only 10,000 for a semi-final that Jewell believes is of more importance to Arsène Wenger now the Premiership title has gone.

Though only six points shy of the 40-point safety barrier, Jewell, restricted by an injury list that limits his options to only 15 outfield players anyway, will rotate in deference to the Premiership once again. "I suppose it is a big game," he said yesterday.

Tonight's attendance, however, is not a reflection of managerial disinterest but an inevitable consequence of seven home matches at the JJB between 17 December and this Sunday. "We've had so many games over the Christmas period and people can't afford it," Spencer said. "It does surprise me because we're in the semi-final of a major cup competition. But people can't afford to keep forking out for games."

Wenger's squad contains several senior players who missed out on the scare at Doncaster in the last round, when Arsenal advanced courtesy of a penalty shoot-out. Jewell believes that the promotion of Freddie Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, among others, is the latest compliment to Wigan's meteoric development.

"I'm pretty certain Arsenal will play their strongest side because when they played us earlier in the season they were surprised at our quality," Jewell said. "This tie is a bonus for us, but we do want the tie to still be alive by the time we go to Highbury."

Jewell also insisted that he would not entertain any bids for Jimmy Bullard during the transfer window and took a sarcastic swipe at Leeds United for refusing to move their FA Cup third-round replay back 24 hours to give Wigan time to recover from Sunday's game with West Bromwich. "If they ever get back in the Premiership they might encounter the same problem."

Wigan (probable): Pollitt; Chimbonda, De Zeeuw, Jackson, McMillan; Mahon, Kavanagh, Francis, McCulloch; Connolly, Roberts.

Arsenal (probable): Almunia; Cygan, Senderos, Djourou, Gilbert; Ljungberg, Flamini, Hleb, Owusu-Abeyie; Reyes, Lupoli.