History made, as final beckons for Wigan

Posted by Ned Brown

Wigan Athletic made history Saturday after a professional performance at Wembley saw off Millwall to secure a spot in their first FA Cup final.

This new benchmark in the Cup provides a huge morale boost for a team battling against relegation in the Premier League. It has gone five matches undefeated and won six of the last nine. What's more, it was a job well done, with two excellent goals, a clean sheet, no yellow cards and, crucially, no injuries.

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The 2-0 scoreline at Wembley was probably a fair outcome given the number of chances created on each side, while the quality of the strikes outlined the gulf in class between the two sets of players. Shaun Maloney got things started when he met a gorgeous, floated cross from Arouna Kone in midair 25 minutes in. Callum McManaman, a real threat throughout, had earlier gone close with a rasping drive, while Jordi Gomez's first-time effort was excellently parried by Millwall keeper David Forde. The first half petered out with Wigan comfortably in cruise control.

The second half was a different story, as Millwall stepped up their effort to press high up the pitch, forcing mistakes out of their opponents. A period of sustained pressure from the London side saw some last ditch defending from set pieces preserve Wigan's lead, but it was the Premier League outfit that looked the more threatening from the open of play.

McManaman, reveling in his key creative role out wide, tormented his marker time and time again, cutting onto his right foot to blaze over before crossing dangerously with his left foot just behind Kone. A delicious through-ball by Gomez with just over 10 minutes left put him in a great position, and he made no mistake by classily rounding Forde and slotting home to celebrate the goal he thoroughly deserved.

While Wigan's two little creators, Maloney and McManaman, made the difference, there were a few flaws in the performance. But this is not a day to pick at imperfections, but a day to enjoy, celebrate and savour. With hope, the violence caught by television cameras in the Millwall supporter section did not lead to serious injury and was contained as supporters left the stadium.

Player Ratings:

Ali Al-Habsi: 7 - Few Wigan supporters would begrudge his return to the starting lineup, despite a wobbly season. Joel Robles did nothing wrong and looks like a promising young goalkeeper, but he was always likely to make way for the Omani international and club talisman before the end of the season. It was a fitting and kind reward for Ali's service and standards in his time with the club that he could make his return at Wembley. The big question now is whether he retains his place for league play.

Emmerson Boyce: 7 - Solid defensive play with one important interception standing out. Has proved a good stand-in captain in Gary Caldwell's absence and will be extremely proud if he retains the armband to lead the team out in the final.

Antolin Alcaraz: 8 - An excellent player who has made a huge difference since returning from injury. It is hard to imagine Wigan being involved in the relegation struggle this season had he been fit and available for the majority of the season.

Paul Scharner: 7 - A couple of wobbly moments, but he made more crucial tackles and interceptions than anyone on the pitch. You could see what it meant to him at the end of the match. He'll be making his second cup final appearance for Wigan as the only member of the current squad who played in the Carling Cup final against Manchester United seven years ago.

Maynor Figueroa: 7 - Solid and composed defensive performance, as has become his habit.

James McCarthy: 6 - Didn't really assert himself on the game but didn't let anyone down and worked very hard, as always.

Jordi Gomez: 7.5 - Very involved, retaining possession in attack and making a significant number of tackles and interceptions on the defensive side of things. His pass for McManaman's goal was beautiful. Unlucky with a first-time effort after a flowing move in the first half.

Shaun Maloney: 7 - Good first half capped by an excellent goal. Quiet in the second and eventually pushed out wide when Jean Beausejour was withdrawn -- a position from which he has less impact on the game.

Jean Beausejour: 6 - Not a bad game, but not his best either. Second time running he has been substituted early -- possibly carrying a niggle? That said, Wigan lost the midfield when he was withdrawn. He rarely loses the ball when in possession.

Callum McManaman: 8 - Excellent, positive, brave performance, taking risks with his direct dribbling and powerful shooting. Took his goal brilliantly and might have scored another couple but for a brilliant save by Forde and an overhit finish. Made his first start for the club a couple of months ago but is fast becoming a key creator for Wigan. Certainly offers something the team has been lacking since Victor Moses' departure in the summer. Surely in with a shout for player of the tournament.

Arouna Kone: 7.5 - Very good, confident front-man play. Single-handedly created the first goal with a brilliant "sombrero," turn, run and cross. Only had one real chance, which Forde beat away with his feet. In good form.

Subs:

James McArthur - Brought on to give Beausejour a rest and help the team regain possession, but the substitution didn't work. Not so much McArthur's fault in particular, as he put in his usual shift, but the team suffered an anxious patch before McManaman's goal settled matters.

Angelo Henriquez - A strange substitution, with Franco Di Santo presumably sitting next to him on the bench. With the match just about settled, you would think Martinez would have given a Wigan player the big-game experience rather than an on-loan Manchester United striker who is likely to get plenty of it in the future. One must hope it does not have to do with the Argentine's intentions this summer.

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