x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Wigan Athletic stun Manchester City to win the FA Cup

Substitute Ben Watson is the hero as his last gasp header wins the final for the Latics 1-0 at Wembley Stadium, writes Richard Jolly.

Ben Watson, left, watches his header loop over Joe Hart, centre, to give Wigan Athletic victory in the FA Cup final.
Ben Watson, left, watches his header loop over Joe Hart, centre, to give Wigan Athletic victory in the FA Cup final.

LONDON // It is a wonderful story. Simply wonderful. Wigan Athletic, a non-league club as recently as 1978 and probably a Championship club next season, are the FA Cup winners.

The ultimate outsiders sprung the biggest shock in a final since Wimbledon defeated Liverpool in 1988, as substitute Ben Watson guaranteed himself a place in Athletic history by heading in the 90th-minute winner.

The underdogs had their day, their manager Roberto Martinez recorded an achievement so seismic that, even if they are demoted, he ends the season with his reputation hugely enhanced.

For Manchester City, however, it was a 90-minute exercise in misery. For their fans, indeed, it was an entire day to forget.

They awoke to headlines indicating their manager, Roberto Mancini, will be dismissed in the summer and then discovered he will not even depart with the FA Cup.

Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and chief executive Ferran Soriano, watching at Wembley, may make the unpopular decision to end Mancini’s reign.

Normally when such upsets occur, they are smash-and-grab raids, examples of the underdogs defending defiantly and grabbing a goal on the break. Not Wigan. They played with an assurance, a confidence, of a side who belonged on the major stage.

They were the smoother in possession, the quicker to create and, in Callum McManaman, they possessed the game’s outstanding player. It was one sign of the Merseysider’s impact that Mancini changed tactics mid-match. Quite simply, he was subjecting Gael Clichy to too tough a time for the Frenchman to cope.

When others intervened, they did so illegally. Matija Nastasic was booked for fouling the winger, then Pablo Zabaleta was sent off for two indiscretions. Referee Andre Marriner’s decision was justified, but it was a sad coda to an outstanding season for the Argentine.

In the 132nd final, he becomes the third member of the FA Cup’s hall of shame. Only Manchester United’s Kevin Moran and Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes had previously seen red cards in the final.

That it was City’s putative player of the year who headed for the early bath was somehow symbolic. Now there is no saving grace to their season.

The FA Cup promised to be a consolation prize. Instead, they were depleted and defeated, leaving Wembley with the sense that an era is ending.

Their major players underperformed. In the clash of the creators, David Silva was overshadowed by Shaun Maloney. Samir Nasri made a minimal impression and was replaced. Even Yaya Toure, normally the Wembley specialist, struggled to get to grips with James McCarthy in the midfield.

It amounted to an astonishing turnaround, since Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat to Swansea City may have effectively ended Wigan’s eight-year stay in the Premier League.

Diabolical defensively then, they were solid following a change of shape and the return to fitness of Antolin Alcaraz, who added ballast to the back three.

At the other end, McManaman started as he carried on, launching a series of solo runs deep into territory.

The one thing he failed to do, after striking in the last 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals, was to keep his scoring run going, but it was not for a lack of trying. In one extraordinary incident, he seemed to try to dribble past every City defender and goalkeeper Joe Hart before Zabaleta blocked his eventual attempt.

On the other flank, Maloney was almost as influential. Before Watson’s late intervention, he came closest to scoring with a free kick that bounced back off the bar.

City’s chances were few and far between. Both managers had faced goalkeeping dilemmas before the game. Martinez resolved his by selecting Joel Robles ahead of Ali Al Habsi and, in an instant, he was justified.

With his trailing leg, the Spaniard contrived to turn Carlos Tevez’s shot over the bar as he dived the wrong way. He also did well to parry away Samir Nasri’s stinging drive.

City made a brighter start to the second half. Aguero’s near-post flick was deflected wide by Emmerson Boyce, the last line of the defence, but their improvement was short-lived.

Mancini changed his system to combat Wigan’s, switching to three at the back after first James Milner and then Jack Rodwell came on, but he was forced into another reshuffle when Zabeleta departed.

The significant change, however, was when Martinez brought on Watson with nine minutes to go. Soon after, he had attained immortality in Wigan.

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