The shifts in balance that occur throughout the league table at this late stage of the season are all the more exciting because they really do mean something now.
Wigan Athletic's meeting with Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday will have big repercussions at the top and bottom of the Premier League regardless of which way the result goes. The stakes have been high in both club's recent fixtures, and they remain equally lofty heading into the DW Stadium this time around.
Having secured a place in next month's FA Cup final, Wigan's excitement at the prospect of competing for a first major honor has been curtailed by the more immediate task at hand—avoiding relegation.
Sitting third bottom, three points behind nearest placed Aston Villa and with a game in hand, their situation is not hopeless. The nature of the defeats they suffered in their last two games—in which they have played well without getting a positive result—might have had men with less conviction than Roberto Martinez questioning their ideals.
The Spaniard has not spent all this time instilling the virtues of a passing game in his side to give up on it now, though. Wigan will live and die by their commitment to playing a certain way.
Beating their cup final opponents Manchester City, away, just over a week ago was always going to be a hard ask. They only lost it in the final 10 minutes having competed well with their northwestern rivals.
Against West Ham United last weekend they dominated possession (61 percent in their favor). The fact they lost tells you how such statistics can often count for little, but here it rings true in that they deserved to get something at Upton Park—with James McArthur and Shaun Maloney among those going close to scoring.
"Sometimes you have moments like that in a season when you play very well and luck doesn't allow you to collect the rewards that you deserve," Martinez remarked after the game (via SkySports.com).
The positivity with which they strive play will be (if they survive) what sees them to safety.
One area that Martinez has not had as telling an impact on his team though has been in defense. Something he is aware of, noting the goals they conceded against West Ham were "a little bit soft."
It is the area in the side that clubs like Tottenham, even when ceding long spells of possession to Wigan, will always feel capable of striking at. Spurs' 1-0 defeat to the Latics in November played out a little like that (though their thinking did not go according to "plan").
Wigan enjoyed more of the ball (52 percent) at White Hart Lane and capitalized on this with Ben Watson's second-half goal. Spurs, even in a relatively uninspired performance, still found a way to force 10 shots on target.
Latics defenders like Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell are better than sometimes given credit for. Yet it is at the back, where Wigan's work elsewhere is largely undone (though of course this can be a product of occurrences further forward, i.e. being caught on a counterattack).
Tottenham have not been without their own defensive problems, but going by their better league position, have obviously been able to overcome these issues a lot more successfully.
After a difficult beginning to spring, Andre Villas-Boas will be hoping things have come together just at the right time. His team's scintillating second-half performance in the win over Man City has given them hope this will be so, but transforming one good result into a sustained run is easier said than done.
Spurs have lost just once in their seven visits to Wigan in the Premier League, back in January 2009. Three of those trips have also come in April though, and each were draws.
This is unsurprising given how Wigan have worked to stave off relegation late in the year so often. As if Villas-Boas and his team needed any reminding, getting the wins they need to finish in the top four will require maximum effort.
Those chances will be enhanced by the return to fitness of Aaron Lennon, whose availability was revealed on Thursday by his manager.
Last Sunday, Jermain Defoe and Gareth Bale both demonstrated how vital pace is to Spurs playing their best football. Lennon will certainly improve the quality of their weaponry in this department.
The City win had given Villas-Boas plenty to think about all ready.
The impact Defoe, Lewis Holtby and Tom Huddlestone made coming off the bench was not just in the individual sense. Their introductions saw an adjustment to a 4-3-3 (for all intents and purposes) formation that gave Spurs a far more effective balance throughout the team.
Depending on how you see it, both Wigan and Tottenham have either extra pressure or an advantage this weekend in that their game comes before their nearest rivals play.
A win for Spurs would see them go ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea come Saturday evening. Wigan securing three points would put them level with Villa, as well as importantly maintain their superior goal difference (not to mention them still having a game in hand).
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