PL25: Wigan’s late comeback topples the Gunners’ title hopes

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a Hollywood climax in a land of pies and pier.

Here’s the set-up. On April 18th 2010 Wigan Athletic hosted Arsenal at the DW Stadium in a Sunday lunchtime kick-off. After five seasons in the top flight the Latics were now an established Premier League force yet in reality their status was never anything less than precarious with two previous escapes from the clutches of relegation on their C.V.

In Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge they were aspiring to play attractive, open fare and if that made their rare memorable days – such as a recent victory over Liverpool – all the prettier it also led to a fair share of hammerings too. Back in November, Tottenham had walloped nine past them and before the year was out Manchester United racked up five for the second time in this campaign.

Going into this game Wigan were four points beyond the drop zone with just four to play and of that quartet two were relegation rivals in West Ham and Hull while the final day offered up eventual champions Chelsea away at the Bridge. Then there was Arsenal, here today, Robin Van Persie, Nasri, Fabregas and all. The Gunners were stinging from a North London derby defeat in midweek but that only made them more dangerous. Before kick-off they were six points adrift of Chelsea but with a precious game in hand. They had a fourth Premier League title in their sights and they were hurting. For Wigan that was an unfortunate combination.

Wigan Athletic v Arsenal 2010

As proven by the opening spell that had Arsene Wenger’s men immediately settle and meaningfully dominate possession. Before the break Theo Walcott finished tidily and then three minutes after the restart Mikael Silvestre headed home from a corner. Arsenal being Arsenal they then went after a third.

If there was one ray of hope for the Lancashire side it was that the visitors were notably weakened in defence on that Sunday afternoon, with first choice keeper Almunia injured and Thomas Vermaelen absent too. But the clock kept on ticking and Arsenal kept on passing and as legs tired and the crowd began to accept the inevitable the contest reached eighty minutes.

Here’s the pay-off. A move down the left was squared at pace into the box and Ben Watson thumped in a low drive with such surety that it made the net loudly fizz on contact. Suddenly the DW Stadium was woke.

Travails, resurgent belief, and even the odd uncharacteristic long ball followed but one passage of play merged to another until the 88th minute was reached. A speculative set-piece was misjudged and floated harmlessly into the grasp of Lukasz Fabianski but the Polish stand-in did some misjudging of his own and flapped at it, patting it down onto the head of Titus Bramble. The Wigan defender reacted with an instinctual stretch of his neck and that was sufficient to see the ball loop over the line.

Fabianski Arsenal v Wigan 2010

Pandemonium. Sheer pandemonium. Or at least initially it was sheer, but then two seconds in it’s possible to detect the collective pause; the doubt. Surely a supposedly top class keeper doesn’t spill a beach ball cross like that? Surely he must have been manhandled. He hadn’t and he did and the sight of the ref jogging back to the centre circle prompted a second wave of celebration.

Arsenal were now on the ropes; their title hopes were now on the ropes. Anything other than three points here and it was almost certainly all over for another year. Three points for Wigan however all-but-secured safety. A draw meanwhile was pretty much no good to either side.

Maybe it was knowing this that drove Charles N’Zogbia in-field with the ball instead of down towards the corner to waste time with the full ninety now up. Whatever his motivation it certainly panicked and surprised the Gunners back-line who flocked towards him en masse.

The French winger’s only route to goal at this point was around them and even then it required substantial curl on the shot with the slightest of a sliver of goal to aim for. Fabianski steadied himself. Two Arsenal defenders lunged desperately.

But the shot was perfect, in calculation and for drama. It was Hollywood in a land of pies and pier. The thump off the inside of the post could have been Wenger’s heart dropping to the floor.

What happened next?

The Latics were pulverised 8-0 at Stamford Bridge but by then it mattered not. They were safe to fight another top flight day.

It was a season of pure frustration for Arsenal who finished third, exited the domestic cups in the early stages, and encountered a sublime Barcelona in the Champions League.