Wigan Athletic 0 Arsenal 0: Wenger blames 'disaster' pitch after Gunners' title run falters

Click to follow
The Independent Football

They said that football would not survive in rugby league territory when Wigan made it to the top flight, but after two years of struggle the round-ball merchants are learning that sharing a pitch with the other lot just might be a lifesaver. While their manager, Steve Bruce, could reflect on climbing above Newcastle and Reading into 13th place last night, his Arsenal counterpart, Arsène Wenger, described the pitch which had conspired to limit his side to a third successive draw as "a disaster" which was "disrespectful to fans who come and pay money".

To be fair to Ian Forshaw, Wigan's head groundsman, the pitch, which is pounded by Wigan Warriors as well as Bruce's side, has improved since heaters placed across it to prepare it for an FA Cup tie left a disastrous scar down the centre a few months back. But even Bruce had to admit it is quite a leveller when a side who have just glittered at San Siro rolls into town. "The groundsman's doing everything he can, he's here 15 hours a day," said the Wigan manager, whose pitch troubles at Birmingham have made him something of a botanist. "There's no real root growth in it, so the top just comes off."

After an afternoon camped in what might be described as Wigan's 22, Wenger could be forgiven for cursing northern fields – he also cast aspersions on the Old Trafford pitch when Arsenal lost so heavily to United at Old Trafford three weeks ago. But there was nothing wrong with the root growth after 45 seconds of this game when a delightful Cesc Fabregas pass sent Emmanuel Adebayor through against Chris Kirkland, who moved sharply to save.

Wenger knows better than most that chances like that need finishing in places like this. "The easiest time to kill these games off is in the first 20 minutes," he admitted later. "The determination and belief grows through the [opposing] team after that."

It was also in the period Wenger designated so crucial that the most comical example of Arsenal's struggle with life in the Lancashire trenches presented itself. An intricate passing movement between Alexander Hleb and Fabregas saw Nicklas Bentdner through into the left of the penalty box and it was when he shaped to shoot that a divot propelled the ball up around his knees.

It was Arsenal's last opportunity of value in a first half during which their superior class reduced Wigan's fans to the mindlessness of chanting Martin Taylor's name. Wenger's comments about the Birmingham defender's challenge on Eduardo might have been retracted, but they have had an unpleasant after-effect in the game.

Arsenal's own conduct left something to be desired in this game. Bendtner's challenge on Jason Koumas in the first half, for which he was booked, was a dangerous one and Fabregas should also have received a card for his gamesmanship in the second half, feigning a strike to the face from Emile Heskey after the two had found themselves wrapped around the TV cameras together.

These were perhaps the effects of a match which was looking increasingly beyond Arsenal's wit to win as the afternoon wore on. Robin van Persie, on as a second-half substitute for Bentdner in his first league start since 16 December, looked a creative force when he emerged and Mathieu Flamini is a player at home in the trenches.

But the man who most mastered the quagmire was Wilson Palacios – a player to whom Bruce says Wenger alerted. As he and Koumas prevailed in the second half, Wigan looked increasingly likely to score on the break. Manuel Almunia produced a fine flying save to his right from Antonio Valencia and William Gallas did well to deflect away a powerful shot by Antoine Sibierski, set up by Valencia.

It was with near perfect symmetry that Adebayor provided for Fabregas in the 89th minute what the striker had set up for him in the first – a genuine scoring chance. A measured ball through the left channel sent Fabregas in against Kirkland and, though the Spaniard might have found more elevation on his flick towards goal, the keeper's fine save reflected his major contribution to a draw which underlines the way Bruce seems to be moving Wigan towards safety.

When, after first arriving at the JJB, Bruce saw his side thumped 4-1 at neighbours Bolton, Bruce admits he feared the worst. But a tally of 20 points from 15 games has changed all that and, true to the manager's ethos, the solid defence which is central to his strategy has managed four clean sheets in five.

For their part, Arsenal find their six-point lead reduced to two, with a game more played. "It is an anti-climax when you go from San Siro to Wigan," Wenger admitted. "We lacked the spark, they defended well and Chris Kirkland did the rest. "We are going through a patch when we feel we are unlucky."

Wigan Athletic: (4-4-2) Kirkland; Melchiot, Boyce, Scharner, Edman; Brown, Koumas, Palacios, Brown; King (Kilbane, 86) Heskey (Sibierski, 54). Substitutes not used: Pollitt, Bramble, Taylor.

Arsenal (4-1-3-2) Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy; Flamini; Fabregas, Gilberto (Touré, 64), Hleb; Bentdner (Van Persie, 64) Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann, Hoyte, Song.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Wigan King, Sibierski. Arsenal Bentdner, Gilberto.

Man of the match: Kirkland.

Attendance: 19,676.