Five questions & a conclusion while setting off for Wembley

Posted by Ned Brown

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesShaun Maloney and Wigan are riding a bit of momentum heading into the FA Cup semi-final against Millwall Saturday at Wembley.

While most of us have spent the week looking forward to a fantastic occasion for all involved in the Wigan Athletic community, most of the headlines floating about this week have focused on the negative, whether it's the ticket situation at Wembley, or the possibility of this Cup run distracting from survival in the Premier League.

Without dismissing those, there is an awful lot more to talk about -- here are some talking points ahead of the club's very first FA Cup semi-final.

Who will play?

It's a peculiar situation, this. Roberto Martinez used the early rounds to give his fringe and youth players a chance to show what they could do. This worked to great effect and gave players such as Callum McManaman, Roman Golobart and Joel Robles the experience and confidence to make the step up in the league when called upon.

-Boyce not thinking of Europe

Then, all of a sudden, the club found itself with a daunting quarter-final draw, away at Everton. Martinez took the middle ground and opted for a mixed lineup, featuring four players who would been unlikely to start in the league previously.

The team produced the result of the season, an emphatic 3-0 away victory, and has gone on to start the subsequent three league matches, winning two and drawing one.

So does Roberto persist with the lineup that has turned Wigan's fortunes around? Or does he mix it up again in order to involve people who have not featured recently, but may well be needed between now and the end of the league campaign? After years of service, do people like Gary Caldwell and Ali Al Habsi not deserve to play at Wembley in the club's first FA Cup semi-final? If so, can you include them without disrupting a winning team?

Has the FA Cup been a hindrance to Wigan's survival efforts?

So far, a resounding no. Quite the contrary. With the team previously struggling in the league, the strong competition for places and confidence-boosting results in the Cup have been pivotal to the club's turnaround in fortunes. A win against Millwall on Saturday would provide another injection of belief ahead of the very difficult trip to Manchester City on Wednesday -- who incidentally could be their rivals in the Cup final as well.

That said, injuries and suspensions could do a world of damage. The squad is fitter than it has been all season and there is cover in almost every position. But if someone such as Shaun Maloney or Antolin Alcaraz were to miss the rest of the season to injury or three league matches to suspension with the FA Cup to blame, then that would be a different story.

Are the Latics ready for Europe?

Wigan is one win from the Europa League, assuming Chelsea maintains top four status. After another season of struggle and the toughest relegation fight yet, is the potential of Europa League football coming a season too soon? Perhaps. Look what it has done to Newcastle's season, although an argument could be made that it has helped Spurs -- who admittedly possess a much larger squad -- find their mojo under a new manager. Birmingham famously reached the promised land of Europe via a cup run only to be relegated and participate in it from the Championship -- where they've remained since.

If the same were to happen to the Latics, would it be a step forward or a step back? The squad Roberto has built, even without top earners, would be more than capable of achieving promotion from the Championship.

The milestones achieved in the last decade: promotion to the Premier League, a League Cup final, wins over the top teams in the country, and now an FA Cup semi-final -- were, and should continue to be savoured. The Europa League would certainly be the next level, and even if it comes a little too early, should be celebrated.

Would qualification for the Europa League help retain Wigan's best players and attract more?

In publicly praising Arouna Kone recently, Roberto appeared to both give the player a shot of confidence for the crucial run-in, and make it clear that every player is available for a good price at Wigan. It's been the working model, and one that has served the club well. But with Franco Di Santo, Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa's contacts coming up for renewal, and a player like Koné running out of time to make one last big move, the Europa League could be the carrot the club needs to retain their key players, for once.

It could also be the carrot that convinces someone such as Aidan McGeady to join.

"Only" 22,000 going to Wembley?

Few of the news outlets I've come across have pointed out that 22,000 is more than a quarter of the Wigan population. For a club that has spent most of its years in non-league, followed by fourth- and third-tier football with crowd under the 2,000 mark, the growth of Wigan's supporter base is truly exceptional. Rather than focus all talk on the 9,000 tickets Wigan Athletic was not able to sell, lets enjoy how far this community has come and enjoy the party. Roberto's comments on the matter here.

What are the odds of a dodgy refereeing decision helping Millwall into the final to maximize ticket sales for the FA?

This cup run is a testament to Martinez's work to strengthen for the long-term

Martinez's long-term vision is slowly being realized before our eyes. There have been almost no big-name or money signings, but instead steady investment in young promising players, facilities and coaching. Two years ago, Wigan Athletic would not have been able to field a second-string starting XI away at a Championship side and emerge classy 4-1 winners. Nor would a mixed team have traveled to Goodison Park and thumped Everton's strongest lineup in an FA Cup quarter final.

That the man of the match award against Huddersfield went to McManaman, who had at that point not yet made a senior league start, could not be more telling. Against Everton, it went to another squad player, Jordi Gomez. Wigan now has strength in depth. Golobart, who started in the centre of defence for most of the cup run, let no one down when he stepped in against Stoke City in the league.

Mauro Boselli, unable to get his league form going, played his part with a match-winning piece of quality as he had done in the League Cup earlier in the year. Current reserve centre forward Di Santo may have lost his place to McManaman last month but came on to partner Lionel Messi for Argentina during a competitive World Cup qualifier against Bolivia, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, the current fourth choice centre-back is Scotland's captain. Wigan have come a long way.

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