Following the experiences they’ve just had, fierce rivals Newcastle United and Sunderland can now at least agree on one thing: they’re both grateful for the existence of Wigan Athletic.
In conceding a combined 12 goals to Liverpool and more crucially Aston Villa between Saturday evening and Monday night, the north-east clubs showcased plenty of the problems that have blighted much of their seasons.
Liverpool brutally exposed Newcastle’s defensive deficiencies to win 6-0 at St. James’ Park, but it was the manner in which Christian Benteke and Villa brushed Paolo Di Canio and his Sunderland side in their 6-1 win on Monday which has so noticeably changed this season’s battle to avoid the drop down to the Championship.
However, despite the dozen goals shipped by Rob Elliot and Simon Mignolet over the Premier League weekend, the key strike came in stoppage time at Wigan’s DW Stadium.
Emmerson Boyce’s late own goal turned Wigan’s three points against Champions League-chasing Tottenham Hotspur into just one from a 2-2 draw, and given what has happened since then that has proved to be a hugely key moment.
Villa’s crushing win saw them join the battered Sunderland and Newcastle on 37 points for the campaign, with the respective goal difference swing between the Villains and the Magpies even seeing Paul Lambert’s side leap above Alan Pardew’s. Newcastle are now the team hovering just above the dreaded relegation zone.
Yet Wigan are a further five points back on 32. Boyce’s own goal was so, so crucial.
No team has ever been relegated from the Premier League when they were five points clear of the drop zone with three games remaining, yet Wigan will need that to happen now if their eight-year spell in the top flight isn’t to come to an end.
Admittedly Roberto Martinez’s Latics still possess a crucial game in hand on all of their rivals down there with them, but even more crucially they have an FA Cup Final to prepare for.
It was back in 1997 when Middlesbrough reached the finals of both domestic cup competitions only to end the campaign relegated to the then-First Division, and Wigan look like staging somewhat of a revival of that campaign.
Huge underdogs when they face Manchester City in the Wembley showpiece final on May 11, Wigan have league matches against West Brom and Swansea before their first ever FA Cup Final and Arsenal and Aston Villa to come after it, yet given the results over the weekend things could be over for them as early as this Saturday.
A loss to the Baggies at The Hawthorns would in all likelihood condemn Martinez’s men to Championship football next season. Perhaps not mathematically, but certainly figuratively.
Although nowhere near as poor as the already relegated Reading and Queens Park Rangers have been throughout this campaign, Wigan could have little complaint were they do be the third team to drop simply given the points disparity between them and their rivals.
Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland and indeed the likes of Stoke and Norwich can all be thankful that there are currently three teams worse than them during a campaign in which they have frequently struggled, yet all look to have done enough to survive―Villa in spectacular fashion on Monday, Newcastle through an accumulation of points earlier in the campaign and Sunderland due to the good form they showed before entering Villa Park.
Lambert, Pardew and Di Canio should all still be Premier League managers come the beginning of next season, when they know they’ll have to steer their side to improvements.
It now seems likely that Wigan―and Boyce―won’t be around to help them out then.