A month ago, this might have been a clear opportunity for Wigan to buck the usual pattern of their yearly slide towards a relegation battle by taking three points against a Sunderland side who then appeared to be heading in the same direction. Instead, for the second year running, they have run into Martin O’Neill’s side at just the wrong time.
Last year it was in late November, O’Neill had been in charge barely a month and Sunderland were flying, midway through a run of six wins in eight when they won 4-1 here. This season, after it had appeared the Ulsterman’s inspirational touch had deserted him, things are suddenly going his way again. His side are on a run of five wins in eight, up to 11th in the table. Wigan, meanwhile, are in familiar territory, slipping into the bottom three.
Wigan may feel they deserved better this time, given that they dominated the second half, pushing Sunderland so far back that, apart from the odd counterattack, they were rarely out of their own half. Twice they hit the woodwork, four other shots passed a whisker wide and Simon Mignolet made a brilliant save to his left to defy the impressive Shaun Maloney.
Angelo Henriquez, the 18-year-old Chilean forward taken on loan from Manchester United, headed home a cross from Maloney after Roberto Martinez had introduced him from the bench with 19 minutes left, exposing Sunderland in the final 10 minutes – 15 in reality, including time added on – that must have seemed like an age to the 4,800 Wearside fans who filled one end of the ground. But there was to be no redemption for Wigan, who are in trouble again after only one win in 10.
In the end, the difference was Sunderland’s striker Steven Fletcher, who seems to loom over Wigan as a menacing spectre year after year. His two goals yesterday, as Sunderland recovered from the loss of a sloppy early goal to build a 3-1 half-time lead, took his tally against Wigan for Wolves and his current club to six in seven matches.
They were taken, too, in a manner that befits a striker for whom O’Neill paid £12 million. He is a powerful centre-forward but showed great athleticism to convert the first, twisting his body to hook home the rebound after seeing his own header repelled by Ali Al Habsi. His second was a real marksman’s finish, struck superbly with his left foot into the top left-hand corner of the goal after Adam Johnson had cushioned a pass from Craig Gardner on his chest inside the Wigan penalty area and rolled it back to his colleague.
“I thought Fletcher was fantastic today, not just for his goals but also for his whole centre-forward play and we took great heart from his performance,” O’Neill said. “Since we lost at Manchester United our run has been pretty good, we won a big game at Southampton and the players have a bit more confidence.”
Martinez felt his side, crucially missing the stabilising quality of Ivan Ramis in defence, who is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, paid the price for failing to defend adequately during Sunderland’s period of ascendancy.
“It is one of those days when you finish the game and feel you have no one to blame but yourself,” he said. “If we had done the things a lot better for 25 minutes we would have won the game.
“For 30 minutes we didn’t play well at all. That is not enough reason to concede the two goals we did to Fletcher. That is the biggest disappointment. No team plays well for 95 minutes but you need to keep a clean sheet for that part of the game. It put us in a position where the second half was very difficult to get a positive result.”
Indeed, Wigan had only themselves to blame for not keeping their lead after David Vaughan crossed into his own net, conceding a penalty – converted by Gardner – when James McCarthy, in the wall, blocked a Sebastian Larsson free-kick with his arm.
Jordi Gomez, Jean Beausejour and Maloney in particular were impressive for Wigan but Sunderland had some outstanding individuals, too, notably their 22-year-old French new signing, Alfred N’Diaye, who was a powerhouse in central midfield but cropped up elsewhere and set up the first Fletcher goal with an outstanding cross.
Wigan (4-4-2): Al Habsi; Stam (Espinoza, h-t), Boyce (Henriquez, 71), Caldwell, Figueroa; McCarthy, McArthur, Gomez, Beausejour; Maloney, Di Santo (Boselli, 76).
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback; N’Diaye; Sessègnon (Bardsley, 84), Larsson, Vaughan (Elmohamady, 90), Johnson (McClean, 75); Fletcher.
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match: Fletcher (Sunderland)
Match rating: 8/10