Not for the first time this season, there was an upset at the JJB Stadium yesterday. Wigan Athletic, flying higher than ever before in second place in the Premiership, were beaten by a bunch of London upstarts who had not won an away game since May. The home side will lose that exalted position if neighbouring Bolton win at Birmingham tomorrow, and it is conceivable that they will never be as high again. But how enjoyable it has been for a team condemned to relegation by most before they had kicked a ball.
"Four years ago today, we played Canvey Island in the Cup and got beat 1-0," said their manager, Paul Jewell. "That shows how far we've come. But the real test for us will be after 38 games. If we stay in this League, we'll have passed every test."
It was a testing time yesterday, twice falling two goals behind to an Arsenal side who for all their woes have lost only once in 13 games. Each time Wigan reacted positively. Not until the second half, by which time five goals had flown in, were Arsène Wenger's team able to get hold of the ball for any length of time and dictate the pace of the game, slowing it to the level they preferred. Even then the bobbly pitch handicapped their more intricate work, and by the end Gilberto Silva and Pascal Cygan were happily kicking for touch.
"Dynamic, direct, physical and brave," was how Wenger described Jewell's Warriors. "I was concerned at half-time because we suffered every time the ball went in the air." That did not say much for defenders like Sol Campbell and Cygan, who was uncomfortable throughout against the rampaging right-wing pair of Jimmy Bullard, who was playing his 121st consecutive game, and Pascal Chimbonda.
Wigan, a non-League side in 1978, do not have to worry about the FA Cup until January these days, but it suits them to play Cup-tie football every week, and there was a third-round feel to yesterday's encounter - not least because of the winter temperatures and a record attendance for the stadium and club. Even after losing out, following eight successive victories in all competitions, they will have plenty more opportunities for glory; above all in a formidable run of games next month away to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United in the space of 10 days.
Right from the off the up-and-at-'em approach unsettled Arsenal, who had arrived late, aggrieved at not having received a police escort from their Manchester hotel. Kolo Touré was booked as early as the third minute and the busy Ian McCullough pulled a shot wide before his team went behind. Campbell played a pass forward to Robin van Persie, who turned beautifully past his fellow Dutchman Arjan De Zeeuw and hit a shot that John Filan should have held comfortably. The goalkeeper's misery was compounded by having conceded a goal for the first time in more than eight hours.
Van Persie might soon have added a second, Stéphane Henchoz pulled off a vital tackle on Henry, and when Cesc Fabregas sent Henry through to score again in the 22nd minute, the test for Wigan had reached serious proportions. They responded splendidly, De Zeeuw heading down a free-kick from the left-back Leighton Baines for Henri Camara to head in as he dived forward.
The pace of Camara and his partner Jason Roberts was a constant threat, but unfortunately it is not replicated by Henchoz and De Zeeuw at the back, so chances continued to flow in a delightfully open game. Roberts should have equalised within a few minutes, eluding the goalkeeper but allowing Touré to clear his shot, and spectators who wandered off early for their half-time tea missed two more goals in the five minutes before the interval.
The first was a wondrous 30-yard free-kick by Henry, placed to the inch, only to be answered by Bullard, who fooled Campbell by stepping inside him from the right and shooting past Jens Lehmann. Cygan, inevitably, was stranded in midfield at the time.
Slowly, Arsenal quelled the fire, only to feel the heat again as the home side's spirit flared in the final 20 minutes. Lehmann plunged bravely at Roberts' feet and with five minutes remaining, the substitute Ryan Taylor, who was on duty for England's Under-21 side in midweek, crossed low and dangerously, fractionally behind the onrushing McCullough. Terrific stuff.Reuse content