For the first time in months, Wigan Athletic can see dry land. Their run of treacherous games ends at Arsenal tonight, before a final four which could yield enough points to complete another successful Premier League survival campaign.
Wigan looked adrift until recently, spending the first three months of the new year at the bottom of the table. Facing Liverpool, Stoke City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal should have finished them. But, against all expectations, the Latics have finally started to earn the results in keeping with their ambitious 3-4-3 football.
A surprising win at Anfield was followed by a 2-0 defeat of Stoke, before a fairly honourable defeat at Chelsea and then the famous 1-0 victory over United last week. Wigan are now out of the relegation zone for the first time since December. And, after tonight's game at the Emirates, they have the easier prospects of Fulham, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers to finish off their season.
This burst is largely thanks to the impact of Shaun Maloney. After Adel Taarabt he is the most gifted player in the bottom five, and it was his perfectly-curled finish which beat United last Wednesday. "He had a massive impact [in the 1-1 draw] against Norwich," Roberto Martinez said of Maloney, who joined from Celtic last August, "and since then he has shown he is a player who is capable of that little bit of magic that gives you results. He makes the fans enjoy their football, which is something they really appreciate, and has shown a real freshness in producing the quality we always knew he had."
Maloney took time to fit into the Wigan team, but Martinez denied that he ought to have started him sooner. "There is a really strong adaptation period for certain players when they leave the Scottish Premier League and come to England," said Martinez. "We worked really hard with him physically to reach the level we needed, then he had to find a partnership and position with our players. That takes time."
Arsenal have also started recently to feel the benefit of a summer arrival. Yossi Benayoun joined on loan from Chelsea last August but only in the last two months have the Gunners seen the best of his obvious gifts: acute football intelligence and a charming first touch.
Benayoun, drifting into midfield from the left side of the front three, was also instrumental in the recent stirring home victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. He certainly lacks Gervinho's spurt of pace, but Benayoun has provided a much more natural balance to Arsenal's play, comfortably exchanging roles with Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta.
The result is the most cohesive and fluent Arsenal side since, at the least, the start of last season. They have won nine of their last 10 league games, and their recent run of seven straight league wins was their first such stretch since October 2007. Suddenly the worries about the ignominy of slipping into the Europa League look merely like an upsetting dream that they have long awoken from. Benayoun scored his second league goal for Arsenal in last Wednesday's 3-0 win at Wolves.
Arsène Wenger is unsurprisingly impressed with Benayoun's growing contribution. "He has been very patient and very professional," Wenger said of the midfielder. "He came here with lack of competition and it took him a while to become really sharp. He kept working and waited for his place. We kept faith in him and put him in for big games because he is an intelligent and talented player. He has a good team attitude."
Arsenal: SZCZESNY, SAGNA, DJOUROU, VERMAELEN, SANTOS, WALCOTT, SONG, ROSICKY, ARTETA, BENAYOUN, VAN PERSIE
Wigan: DISANTO, FIGUEROA, CALDWELL, ALCARAZ, BEAUSEJOUR, McCARTHY, McARTHUR, BOYCE, MALONEY, MOSES, ALHABSI
Kick-off: Tonight, 8pm, (Sky Sports 1). Odds: Arsenal 1-5; draw 5-1; Wigan 11-1. Ref A Marriner (W Midlands).
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