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Aug 8, 2008

Bruce brings optimism back to the JJB

Optimism has been in short supply at the JJB since Paul Jewell took Wigan Athletic into the Premier League in 2004/05 and lifted the club to 10th place in their first season in the top flight.

Embroiled in a relegation battle for the past two campaigns, the club have been on a downward spiral which reached its nadir with the departure of Jewell and the sacking of Chris Hutchings last year.

Having started last season in blistering fashion, Wigan initially flourished under Hutchings and were top of the table for the first time in the club's history in August. However, things took a turn for the worse and after six straight defeats, Hutchings was sacked as the Latics slipped into the relegation zone before Christmas.

Credited with turning the club around, new manager Steve Bruce eventually hauled them up to 14th place after a protracted debate over compensation with Birmingham City and there is now a renewed optimism at the JJB, not seen since their impressive first season in the Premier League.

Indeed, Bruce's resurgence has seen him bring in a new class of player to the side - poaching a few from his old club.

The main jewel in Bruce's crown has to be Wilson Palacios. Originally signing the Honduran international at St Andrews (after a recommendation from Arsene Wenger), Bruce's faith in the midfielder has been repaid after a superb debut season in the top flight.

Strong, powerful and with bags of stamina, Palacios has been a revelation for Wigan since signing in January last year. But he is not the only former Blues player to be drafted in by his old boss.

Bruce has also strengthened his midfield with Oliver Kapo and Daniel De Ridder. Kapo has shown himself to be an excellent creative playmaker, chipping in with five goals for Birmingham last season and Bruce will think he got a good deal, signing the Frenchman for only £3.5million. While Dutchman De Ridder has not had much of a chance to impress in the Premier League, his pace and trickery should also provide the Latics' frontline with a boost.

Ambitious in the transfer market, Bruce has also played his part in bringing more talent into the squad for the new season. Notably, promising youngster Lee Cattermole from Middlesbrough and Egyptian striker Amr Zaki.

The departures of under-achievers Andreas Granqvist, David Cotterill, Salomon Olembe and Julius Aghahowa should not hit the squad hard, as they have been adequately replaced by the two new arrivals.

Cattermole has shown himself to be a determined, gritty individual during his time at Middlesbrough. The young midfielder has a great deal of potential and will learn a lot from playing alongside Michael Brown; while Zaki has been one of the most consistent strikers on the international stage, netting over a goal every two games for Egypt and is statistically ranked by Fifa as the top striker in the world.

Certainly players of potential, and Zaki in particular during his year on loan from Zamalek, could form a devastatingly physical partnership alongside Emile Heskey.

Having failed with a £10million bid for Fulham-bound Andy Johnson, Wigan don't seem finished on the transfer front yet, although they still possess a number of players already on the books who could make an impact for them in the new season.

Heskey, of course, has international experience although has been dogged by inconsistency over his career. A powerful striker, if the former Liverpool man can recreate some of the performances that saw him earn a recall to the England squad last September, then Wigan could be in for a good season.

Likewise, Antonio Valencia will be looking to build on an impressive 2007/08 campaign which saw him linked with a summer move to Liverpool. The Ecuadorian winger's pace and skill on the ball formed an important part of Wigan's escape act last season and the 23-year-old looks capable of leading the side to better things.

Yet while Wigan's attacking players gained the plaudits, it was their solid defence that formed the basis for their survival.

Goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has established himself as #1 after finally overcoming his injury nightmare and his commanding presence between the sticks was of paramount importance to the side. Tall and agile, Kirkland did his England hopes no harm with a series of strong performances and won the Players' Player of the Year award, showing how highly he is regarded among his teammates.

Another injury-free season should see the 27-year-old enhance his growing reputation and, in front of him, there is also cause for optimism.

Marshalled by the committed Paul Scharner, the Latics' defence held firm towards the end of the campaign and only conceded nine goals in their final 14 games. Coinciding with a six-match period in which the clumsy Titus Bramble was dropped from the side, Wigan ensured their safety with some impressive defensive performances and Bruce has not sought to strengthen in this area over the summer.

The likes of Mario Melchiot, Emmerson Boyce and Kevin Kilbane all featured prominently for the side last campaign, but without any significant arrivals at the back, there is the risk that Wigan could suffer.

In truth, their ageing defence over-performed in the second half of the season and in Erik Edman, Ryan Taylor and Bramble, the back-line does not have quality in depth.

Still, under Bruce the Latics have shown themselves to be a far more consistent side. Holding Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to draws, they have shown they have what it takes to spring a surprise and, with some good new signings to boost the squad, there is no reason why they should be in danger of relegation this season.

Although they might not hit the heights of their 10th placed finish in their first season in the top flight back in 2005/06, expect Wigan to improve dramatically from the side that looked destined for the Championship last year.


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