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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 10, 2006

Power restored at Wigan

Wigan Athletic 1-0 Arsenal

There is a first time for everything. For Wigan Athletic, this was a first appearance in the last four of a major cup competition. For most of the below-capacity crowd, it was a novelty to be plunged into darkness during the second half.

But the floodlight failure had its benefits. Indeed, it could be considered an indictment of the game that it got more eventful when the lights went out. While the other 21 players converged on the touchline, Jimmy Bullard headed for an unoccupied Arsenal goal, shot...and missed.

Debate in the press box turned to the correct spelling of Aleksandr (or Aleksander, or Alexander) Hleb. 'I'm not Belorussian,' was one of the less helpful contributions. It was all rather hypothetical: a couple of fouls aside, Hleb had done little to merit a mention.

Anyway, the 13-minute interruption benefited Wigan, who emerged a more purposeful and urgent team after Paul Jewell's second and third team talks of the evening. Andreas Johansson had already had an effort cleared off the line by Freddie Ljungberg when a second substitute, Paul Scharner, was more successful, meeting by Gary Teale's deep cross with a thumping header.

The Wigan boss explained: 'I said to them at half time 'look, you might never get another chance to play in another semi-final. Do it for your wives, your girlfriends'...and some of them have got both. It was a strange game in the first half. There was no tempo. We didn't show enough desire, enough energy.'

Arsene Wenger added: 'We fell asleep for the quick throw-in. We were a bit unlucky to lose our right back and a central midfielder [Sebastian Larsson] played there and that is where you are vulnerable at the back post.' Wenger refused to use the delay as an excuse, adding: 'Top-level sport is for people who adapt to every situation.'

A power cut across Wigan, it emerged, was the reason, rather than a ploy to mask the attendance. In any event, the eventual figure (12,181) was higher than pessimistic predictions had suggested.

But it was still less than half the crowd for the Premiership meeting between these two teams. Even Wigan chairman Dave Whelan didn't bother coming to a sparsely populated JJB Stadium, even though this is uncharted territory for them. The Auto Windscreens Shield and the Freight Rover Trophy apart, they are strangers to semi-finals. Scharner's goal means they could make it from the LDV Trophy to the UEFA Cup in three years.

It might be strange to see Wigan in Europe but there is something incongruous about the sight of a team accused of never taking the Carling Cup seriously in the semi-finals. Wenger has always had an experimental approach to a trophy he has never won, and hinted that will continue in the second leg, saying: 'We will keep our priorities exactly the same. We use the Carling Cup for our young players and the Premiership remains our priority.'

But that almost backfired at Doncaster and even an unfriendly FA Cup draw - away at Bolton, experts at unsettling Arsenal - has not prompted a change of thought, even though this surely represents his best chance of silverware this season. So things have changed at Arsenal.

It was evident on the pitch with a team that provided another example of Wenger's new-found enthusiasm for 4-5-1, a particular unusual formation for a manager short of central midfielders to favour.

It was notable Gilberto, much the deepest of the three he fielded, paid particular attention the right to protect the two rookies on that side of the Arsenal defence; equally, Wigan were targeting the slight right back Kerrea Gilbert by aiming goal kicks at Lee McCulloch, an aerial threat on the left wing. But that tactic had to be changed when the injured David Connolly departed and McCulloch went to partner Jason Roberts in attack.

For Philippe Senderos, meanwhile, facing Roberts may have brought back traumatic memories of his encounters with Didier Drogba. At least, before long, the Swiss youngster had no one else to worry about, injury disrupting Wigan's second strike partnership of the night and ending McCulloch's involvement.

'The natural thing would have been to bring Damien Francis on,' explained Jewell. 'But I thought Scharner, being a new player, might give us the spark we were lacking. We've bought him mainly to play centre back, but he can play midfield.'

He emerged complete with a blue streak in his hair. His first touch was a shot from 35 yards; suffice to say, he is no Xabi Alonso. Graham Kavanagh provided a better example of a long-range shot with a dipping free kick that Manuel Almunia parried.

Arsenal, meanwhile, had only threatened when Ljungberg, on a trademark diagonal run, met Mathieu Flamini's pass to go through on goal. His finish, wastefully high, told a story of the Swede's season so far.

And Wigan's injuries forced Jewell to switch to a five-man midfield. That, and an impromptu venture into darkness, helped swing the game the home side's way. With Kavanagh sitting deep, Scharner and the irrepressible Bullard drove Wigan on. The first spell of genuine pressure in the game brought the breakthrough.

And, though it was utterly deserved, there was still a sense of wonder in the words of one fan at the final whistle: 'Just look at that scoreboard. I never thought I'd see that'. But he has, and he could yet see Wigan in a cup final.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scharner - Not just for his goal, either; this was a highly encouraging debut for the energetic midfielder.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Stephane Henchoz appeared guilty of a two-footed tackle on Ljungberg, even if he did get the ball. Even so, it was just the sort of challenge that was supposed to have been outlawed.

WIGAN VERDICT: With Connolly and McCulloch limping off and Henri Camara in Africa, it would be no surprise if a striker tops Jewell's shopping list.

ARSENAL VERDICT: This was one match too far for Arsenal's kids in the cup competitions. Right back Gilbert, in particular, struggled, while Quincy Owusu-Abeyie floundered as a lone striker. More regulars could have brought a different result.

INJURY NEWS: David Connolly is out of Wigan's match with West Brom on Sunday, while Lee McCulloch is a doubt.