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May 8, 2013

Credits roll on Wigan's great escape

Mentions of Wigan and "The Great Escape" have gone hand in hand over recent seasons, but this was more Steve Kean than Steve McQueen. It was, perhaps, the day that Wigan's eight-season stay in the Premier League was effectively ended, an evening of high farce in defence as a wonderful chance to extricate themselves from the bottom three was squandered. "A unique opportunity," Roberto Martinez termed it. Wigan contrived to spurn it in a fashion that was both familiar and, as their defending reached a new low, frightening.

In any case, "The Great Escape" had a misleading title. For most of those involved, there was no happy ending. With two games to go, it is looking ever more unlikely there will be for Martinez's arch-escapologists either. They have specialised in tunnelling their way to safety, timing their arrival above the dotted line just in time, but now find themselves marooned in the relegation zone, three points from safety, 180 minutes from the dreaded drop. It is Wembley for Wigan on Saturday. It could be Brentford for them next year.

With supreme ingratitude, FA Cup finalists were condemned to defeat by Capital One Cup winners. Martinez was the architect of Swansea's rise from League One. They propelled him nearer the Championship. Angel Rangel, the rhyming right-back Martinez unearthed in Catalonia for £10,000 six years ago, scored an equaliser. Itay Shechter and Dwight Tiendalli netted their first and perhaps last Swans goals but, beyond their personal pleasure, the consequences were far greater for Wigan.

Simply to take their season to the final-day clash with Aston Villa, they may have to upset Arsenal. "I think they will need a win at the Emirates," said Swansea manager Michael Laudrup. Safe in mid-table themselves, City rode to the rescue of the imperilled trio of Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland; none of them may have to win again.

Yet, if the last rites are being read for Wigan, Martinez insists his ailing side can mount another improbable recovery. "We have done it before and we can do it again," he said. "We can go to any place in the Premier League and get the points. We have never given up or thrown in the towel as a football club and we will not do it now."

Normally, however, they are acquiring momentum at this point in time. There is an annual assumption May brings the best from Wigan. Here it brought the worst. "They defended like a bunch of lemmings," lamented a departing spectator, colourfully but truthfully. In the final reckoning, the injuries to Maynor Figueroa, Antolin Alcaraz and Ivan Ramis, who might have formed an accomplished trio at the back, could prove the decisive factor in demotion.

In their absence, the recalled skipper Gary Caldwell proved captain calamity, setting up Wigan's second but supplying Swansea's equaliser and erring with depressing predictability. To his left, Roger Espinoza scored but played a part in two of the visitors' goals. Wigan had taken four points despite making horrendous blunders against Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion; they lost three because of a trio of avoidable goals against Swansea.

Espinoza stood motionless as Wayne Routledge chipped a cross for Rangel's volleyed leveller, five minutes after the break. Caldwell coughed up possession for the second, Shechter's shot deflecting in off Emmerson Boyce. "We shot ourselves in the foot," Martinez said. "The second goal is a bad decision." The third was little better, panic proving contagious even before Espinoza and James McArthur failed to deal with Pablo Hernandez's cross, allowing Tiendalli the chance to stab in from close range.

Ever diplomatic, Laudrup deflected questions about the hosts' defending by replying: "Wigan is a very good team with the ball." It is often true. On this occasion, however, they weren't. Nervousness was contagious. Nevertheless, they scored twice and were inches from two other goals.

Espinoza volleyed them ahead on the stroke of half-time, opening his Wigan account after trading the Midwest, in the shape of Sporting Kansas City, for the North West. No sooner had they lost a lead than they regained it when Caldwell picked out James McCarthy who drove forward and drilled his shot under Michel Vorm.

They were agonisingly close to a third goal, McArthur scuffing his chance to make it 3-1 and Caldwell, sensing redemption, denied by a brilliant save from Vorm. They were more "what ifs" for Wigan but, ever optimistic, Martinez preferred to wonder what will be. "Anything could happen," he said.

If they are to survive, however, this will be their greatest escape. They are set to follow Kean down. If they resemble McQueen, it is because they are bloodied and tangled in barbed wire, glimpsing the promised land but discovering it is tantalisingly out of reach.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Routledge – The most dangerous player on the pitch. Routledge's improvement this season is both dramatic and a huge credit to Laudrup's management. His pass for Rangel's goal was simply sublime.

WIGAN VERDICT: It had the feel of a game too far after Saturday's stirring win at West Brom. Now Wigan are running out of time and quality players. Though Espinoza scored, they missed the crossing of the injured Jean Beausejour. Perhaps Martinez could have tried the youngster Roman Golobart instead of Caldwell but his options are few and far between. He has one player less after the loss of substitute Ronnie Stam with a suspected broken leg. The persistent Arouna Kone kept on shooting but the worry for Wigan is they need to score at least three goals to win at the moment.

SWANSEA VERDICT: So much for the notion they were ideal opponents. Even with Michu, Sung-Yong Ki and Chico Flores all out injured and likely to miss Saturday's trip to Old Trafford, they still recorded a first win in two months, courtesy of their squad players. They are almost certain to end up in the top half and record their highest finish for three decades, a deserved reward for a terrific season. Goalkeeper Vorm, who was knocked out and stretchered off after a clash of heads with Ben Davies, should be ok but will be examined on Wednesday.

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