As befits the new high rollers of English football, Manchester City are supposed to turn up in towns like Wigan and beat sides like Wigan Athletic. But yesterday their plans for world domination were temporarily halted just 17 miles outside Manchester by a team of bolshie Lancastrians who lie down for no one.
Mark Hughes' team racked up their eighth away point of the season at this outpost of north-west football, which gives them a total only three short of the amount they earned for the whole of last season. They saw out the draw with only 10 men after Pablo Zabaleta's dismissal. They are one point off the Champions League places. And yet with City's lofty ambitions this might count as a disappointment.
This game made it two points from the last three games for City, not quite the run Hughes will have envisaged but there are good reasons for all those results: a last-minute defeat to Manchester United in controversial circumstances, a hard-fought draw at Villa Park before the international break and yesterday's draw playing with 10 men for 25 minutes. Even so, there can be no mistakes against Fulham at home on Sunday.
Martin Petrov scored City's equaliser early in the second half after Charles N'Zogbia had given Wigan the lead before the break. The sending-off changed everything about City's approach but Roberto Martinez's team were impressive. They have taken four points from two games against Chelsea and City, even if in both games they conceded early after half-time.
But this was not just about City and their expensively assembled talent, it was also about Alan Wiley, refereeing his first game since he was monstered by Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of Manchester United's victory over Sunderland on 3 October. If Wiley was wondering whether he might be of interest then he needed look no further than the press box where his erstwhile refereeing colleague, Graham Poll, had been dispatched, with laptop, to write his newspaper column.
Only 28 minutes of the game had been played when the first chant of, "You're not fit to referee," drifted down from the stands to Wiley from the Wigan support. By the end of the match it was the City fans who, with Zabaleta dismissed for a second yellow card, were singing, "You're too fat to referee". They were both wrong: Wiley had a good game.
To his credit, Hughes could make a joke about Wiley's fitness – going out of his way to praise the referee's athleticism – and he disagreed over Zabaleta's sending-off only in the mildest terms. Hughes' main quibble was that Shaun Wright-Phillips should have had a penalty in the 80th minute after a tangle with Maynor Figueroa but that was highly debatable.
Despite the draw, Hughes was relentlessly upbeat. He talked about having a different class of player this year, "Every player at this level has the ability to shoot, pass and trap a ball," he said. "But they have to do it under pressure when things are going wrong or the momentum of a game changes. It comes from within. This year we have more characters who can do that."
Just watching Wigan can be exhausting. They are an all-action bunch, powerful – athletic in more than just their name. They made City work for every ball with Hugo Rodallega and the French midfielder Mohamed Diame particularly impressive. Rodallega doubled up as an extra midfielder when the moment required it but he also had some of Wigan's best chances as well as a part in his side's goal.
Back in the City team was Micah Richards, playing his first game since the defeat to United at Old Trafford last month and he was part of the trail of errors for the Wigan goal one minute before half-time. A high ball down the right saw Zabaleta lose out to Paul Scharner. Jason Scotland got to the ball before Richards and played in Rodallega whose shot was stopped but not held by Shay Given. N'Zogbia beat Wayne Bridge to tap in the rebound.
Having proved second best every step of the way in that passage of play, City came out after the interval and ambushed their opposition. Carlos Tevez scuttled down the right and cut the ball back across the box. When Wright-Phillips missed it, the Wigan defence was wrong-footed. Titus Bramble was painfully slow in shutting down Petrov who beat Chris Kirkland easily. Typical of Bramble. Less than 10 minutes later he slid in to take the ball off Emmanuel Adebayor beautifully as he ran through on to a pass from Tevez. For his part, Kirkland had to have a dislocated finger wrenched back into place by the physio following a challenge at a corner.
Whether Wiley watched his own highlights montage that Sky Sports ran at half-time – with "Keep on Running" by the Spencer Davis Group as the soundtrack – we will never know. But he was correct with the decision to dismiss Zabaleta for a blatant trip on Scotland, his second yellow after a foul on Figueroa in the first half.
City were forced to reorganise and Adebayor, already limping, was substituted for Vincent Kompany who went to centre-back so Richards could fill Zabaleta's role at right-back. Hughes said Adebayor should be back in action for next weekend but in truth he looked badly off the pace yesterday.
The best chances at the end of the game all fell Wigan's way – a shot from Diame that went over, another from substitute Jordi Gomez and then a brilliant save from Given from the excellent Rodallega. City have not lost sight of the summit, according to Hughes, they have merely stumbled.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Scharner (Gomez, 72), Boyce, Bramble, Melchiot; Figueroa, Thomas, N'Zogbia, Diame; Scotland, Rodallega. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Cho, Koumas, Sinclair, Kapo, King.
Manchester City (4-3-2-1): Given; Zabaleta, Richards, Lescott, Bridge; Wright-Phillips (Ireland, 83), De Jong, Barry; Tevez (Santa Cruz, 82), Petrov; Adebayor (Kompany, 70). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Johnson, Sylvinho, Weiss.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire)
Booked: Wigan Thomas, Figueroa Manchester City Zabaleta
Sent off: Zabaleta (65)
Man of the match: Rodallega.
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