There is something about Ben Watson, Wigan Athletic and the FA Cup. Having etched his name into the club's history when he scored the winner against Manchester City in the final at Wembley nine months ago, Watson produced another memorable goal here to take the holders into the quarter-finals and inflict more pain on Cardiff City.
The midfielder's sublime strike from 30 yards out, five minutes before the interval, condemned Cardiff to a chastening defeat that completed a miserable week for the Welsh club. Second from bottom in the Premier League and involved in an ugly public dispute with Malky Mackay, their former manager, on the eve of this fifth-round tie, Cardiff were forced to endure the ignominy of elimination from the FA Cup at home, at the hands of Championship opposition.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's body language at the final whistle, which was greeted with some booing, said it all. The Cardiff manager had hoped the FA Cup could build some much-needed momentum during the final stretch of the season, but, instead, the competition that he won twice while playing for Manchester United ended up raising doubts about his players' ability to turn things around. For all of Cardiff's possession in the second half, they struggled to create clear-cut chances and, towards the end, resorted to lumping balls into the box – or, as Solskjaer put it, "playing percentages".
The damage was done in the first half, when Uwe Rösler's side started the more sharply and punished some desperately poor Cardiff defending to take the lead through Chris McCann. Although Fraizer Campbell brought Cardiff level, Watson's beautifully hit shot restored Wigan's lead and proved to be the defining moment of the game.
"It's very disappointing," Solskjaer said. "We had the majority of possession and more chances, but when you don't take chances you are not going to win games. The first goal to concede was a poor one. But the second goal you can't do anything about; it was a wonder strike from the kid."
The performance of Mats Moller Daehli, the Norwegian winger signed from Molde last month, provided a crumb of comfort for Cardiff supporters. Making his full debut, Daehli was lively throughout and, on this evidence, it will be hard for Solskjaer to leave the teenager out of his starting lineup for the crucial home game against Hull City next Saturday.
"That's the biggest plus. Probably the only plus," Solskjaer said, reflecting on Daehli's display. "He proved that he's going to be a fantastic footballer one day. He just wants to get on the ball. The more the game went against us, he was the one who got us a foothold again. The first 25 minutes we didn't start brightly enough, but he got us going."
By that point, Cardiff were already a goal down. Jordi Gómez wriggled clear on the left flank, where he nicked the ball away from Magnus Wolff Eikrem far too easily before riding another half-hearted challenge, this time from Kevin Théophile-Catherine. Gómez then cut the ball back for the unmarked McCann, who calmly steered a left-footed shot, from about 12 yards out, beyond Cardiff's goalkeeper David Marshall.
Cardiff started to work their way back into the game and levelled the scores in the 27th minute through Campbell. Wilfried Zaha – who, at times, seemed to be trying to break the record for the number of stepovers produced in one game – ran on to Daehli's flick on and darted into the area. Although Iván Ramis blocked Zaha's path, Wigan were unable to clear the danger and the ball broke to Campbell, who drilled a left-footed shot through a crowd of players and inside the stranded Ali al-Habsi's near post.
Campbell spurned a decent opportunity to put Cardiff in front when he nodded Zaha's cross over the bar, and that was a moment the home side swiftly came to regret. Marshall seemed to think there was little threat when Wigan were awarded a free-kick 30 yards out, choosing to set up only a two-man wall. Gómez, however, shifted the ball a couple of yards to the right to open up the angle and Watson strode forward to fire a splendid drive into the corner of the net.
Al-Habsi denied Juan Cala, Craig Noone and Zaha, and the enterprising Daehli came close with a couple of curling efforts as Cardiff pushed for a second equaliser, but Wigan held on to claim their second Premier League scalp – Crystal Palace were dispatched in the previous round – and keep alive hopes of a Wembley return.
"Our supporters travelled in big numbers and we wanted to make them proud," said Rösler, whose appointment as manager in December has coincided with an upturn in Wigan's fortunes. "I'm very happy with the performance and application. I wanted to compete against the best teams in the country and Cardiff, today, gave us the possibility, and we stood our ground very well."