Wigan can overtake on the last lap after playing catch-up

Roberto Martinez's style will be more Spanish cheese than Stoke chalk today, but staying up will taste extra sweet
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The Independent Online

The last thing Stoke City would wish to hear after their Wembley experience, you might imagine, is that this afternoon's final home match of the season is another cup final. Yet that is how the visitors Wigan Athletic are treating it.

"As I said last week, the League is finished for us and there were two cup finals left," says their manager Roberto Martinez. Had last Sunday's game, in which West Ham were beaten in the final minute after leading 2-0, genuinely been cup football, it would have gone down in the annals with the Matthews final and Bayern Munich against Manchester United. As it is, such is the congestion at the foot of the Premier League that with Blackpool and Wolves winning too, that triumph only earned Martinez's side another equally crucial encounter today.

At 2-2 in added time, Wigan and West Ham were cutting each other's throats. A second goal of the afternoon from Charles N'Zogbia meant it was east London blood that was spilt and Avram Grant who finished with a knife in his back. This afternoon, the whole cut-throat business continues, in the colosseums of Old Trafford, Molineux, White Hart Lane and the Britannia.

It is a day for blood and guts, one demanding character and moral courage as much as the style on which Martinez's teams pride themselves. What will be especially fascinating about the gladiators at the Britannia is the contrast in approach and also the mood in the home arena. After losing so badly last Saturday, Stoke's manager Tony Pulis admitted that a repeat contest with Manchester City three days later would be "difficult" and so it proved, the margin of defeat this time reflecting the balance of play at 3-0. By today, however, Pulis has insisted that the mutual appreciation between team and home crowd will kick in.

Sitting in the manager's room at the DW Stadium with a large cappuccino, Martinez acknowledged Stoke as "one of the strongest teams in the League at home", difficult to play against and "a clear example of mastering what you're good at". He has done the same at Wigan, albeit employing Spanish cheese to Stoke's Potteries chalk. Not right or wrong, just different; it is a lesson he absorbed after arriving in Lancashire 16 years ago as one of the new owner Dave Whelan's "three amigos".

On and off the pitch, it was something of a culture shock, and Martinez doubts that without his two compatriots he would have survived. "When you look back, it was like a comedy routine. There were three of us and we would all get home and ask each other how we did this or that. On my own I would not have lasted more than two weeks." Then there was the football. "Everything I had been told was right in football in Spain, I was told in England was wrong. You end up learning there is no right and wrong. It is simply what suits a group of footballers best to win a game."

Martinez can laugh now at the reservation initially expressed by Whelan that he would not be tough enough for management. "When you are 21 and you are a young Spanish player coming over to the old Third Division, if you're not tough, you won't survive six months. I stayed for 15 seasons. You have to be very strong underneath, you don't need to be shouting and acting in a certain way. You just need to work as hard as you can and put in all the hours you can for the football club."

Observing his former midfielder in charge at Swansea for two seasons convinced Wigan's chairman that there was an obvious replacement when Steve Bruce upped sticks for Sunderland in 2009. Last season, Martinez guided Wigan to a relatively comfortable 16th place and this season they have rallied twice, after an unpromising start and a bleak midwinter. "All of the work we've been putting in, we've had 623 sessions of football time since I've been here, and I feel that the group is ready to get through any sort of adversity.

"Two months ago it was Wigan Athletic and two more to go down but with one game to go we have a great opportunity to get 42 points. That is six points more than last season and the lowest number of defeats we have had in the Premier League. So for me it is a positive time."

Never mind two months ago; many had written Wigan off after the opening two games, home defeats of 4-0 to Blackpool and 6-0 to Chelsea. It was a tribute to the players' character and the manager's belief that they then went to Tottenham, scene of a 9-1 hiding the previous season, and won 1-0. A more modest Carling Cup win over Hartlepool the same week was the only example of two successive wins in this campaign, a target they must now aim for today.

If Wigan survive, as at the final whistle last Sunday, Martinez might let his emotions show, but during the game he will be the calmest of the five relegation-threatened managers pacing their technical area: "If you get emotional or carried away with decisions, you can't help the players. I think you need to be calm. In any game, it's won or lost by the players' decisions and as a manager you have to help them. If you're not composed you can't think and it's important to be calm during the 90 minutes."

The cappuccino has grown cold amid all this eloquence and it is time to sum up: "We started the League with minus 10 [goals] from the first two games and we've been catching up since. We're really clicking in the last third of the competition and we'd like to have another 20 games at this level, but now the challenge is completely different. We've got to win two games. And we're halfway there."

Stoke City v Wigan Athletic is on Sky Sports 1 (red button), kick-off 4pm

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