It was not the Manchester City cruise many predicted and although Wigan may go down they showed they can play
According to Roberto Martínez, when you are in an FA Cup final you can play without fear, because it doesn't really matter who wins or loses, you are already in a great occasion and there is nothing in particular at stake. It is fixtures such as Swansea in your penultimate home game of the season, when your whole Premier League future might depend on picking up three points, that pile on the pressure and force your defenders into silly mistakes.
As weird as that sounds, Martínez is possibly right, as his Wigan players backed up the manager's confidence here and played like a side accustomed to such grand surroundings. They were unrecognisable from the disorganised and absurdly generous outfit that gifted Swansea three goals on Tuesday, and they managed to make a mockery of Manchester City's status as favourites, wealthiest team on the planet and last season's league champions. Wigan made few mistakes, defended capably and gave the City defence something to think about from start to finish.
This was not the one-sided final many had predicted, and although Wigan still look likely to be relegated unless they can take six points from their remaining two league games, in achieving the first Cup final upset of the Premier League era with a scarcely believable rags-over-riches victory – when Dave Whelan took over the club he paid just £400,000 – they showed how well they can play. Wigan fans know how well their side can play, they just have no idea when they will come up with the good stuff and when they will resemble a team of strangers. If truth be known their manager is probably in the same boat, he is just a master at disguising it. Wigan will be hoping for more of the good stuff away to Arsenal and at home to Aston Villa on the last day, though like Emmerson Boyce getting his hands on the trophy, their supporters will believe it when they see it.
A difficult balancing act, Martínez called it. He was referring to eking out his limited resources in each of his side's three huge fixtures in the last eight days of the season, not introducing Antolín Alcaraz to the scarily large Wembley pitch in his first game back after a month out with a muscle tear, although at the sharp end of the season risks are evidently part of the manager's thinking.
If the relatively inexperienced Joel Robles was nervous about appearing in such a big occasion, he will have felt better after making the first save of the game after four minutes, diving to his left to beat away Yaya Touré's hopeful effort following a free-kick. Robles did even better to keep the game scoreless on the half-hour, managing to keep out Carlos Tevez's shot when a goal seemed certain. A clever run by Samir Nasri had pulled the Wigan defence out of position, and when the ball came across goal Tevez had only Robles to beat. But the advantage of a big goalkeeper is that he can spread himself that bit further, and an extended boot was what flipped the goalbound shot over the bar. Robles saved again from Nasri on the stroke of the interval, punching away a shot that he could only have seen late, so Martínez's decision did not appear to have backfired.
Wigan were not expected to test Hart too often – bookies were offering 2-1 against them scoring at all – yet they carved up the City defence quite easily when Arouna Koné's perfectly weighted pass set up Callum McManaman with a shooting chance, although by the time the young forward had decided to go for placement rather than power he might have been better advised to square the ball back to Koné in the middle. The Ivorian was furious when McManaman missed the target, although at least it was clear Wigan would not be spending all their time in their own half.
McManaman was through again 10 minutes from the interval, this time with no one in support when he could have done with a man in the middle. Having been forced wide he attempted to beat the City defence again to improve his shooting angle, only to find Pablo Zabaleta in the way of his attempt.
Wigan found it harder to find space in the second half, and gradually began to be pinned back, with Sergio Agüero inches away from an opening goal from a Tevez cross. As long as the game remained goalless there was always the chance a single goal might nick it, and although Wigan do not boast quite the firepower of the City front line they do have one of the players of the back end of the season in McManaman. Tireless, full of running and always willing to take opponents on, he proved so difficult to handle that Zabaleta went into the book for bringing him down, as did Matija Nastasic, and Vincent Kompany was required to make an outstanding block to close down a shot from close range.
When Zabaleta deservedly saw red after his second caution, the foul was almost inevitably on McManaman. When Gareth Barry was booked for bringing down Maloney just outside the area City appeared to be getting desperate. Wigan kept on with the patient passing game that, by using the whole width of the pitch, had confounded Millwall, and, just as stoppage time was being announced, Ben Watson gave them their reward by showing far more determination than anyone in blue to reach Maloney's corner.
A corner won by McManaman, needless to say. With timing like that, who can say Wigan do not have a chance of pulling off another escape? Even if they fail, they will always have this imperishable and unlikely memory. As will City fans, who did not start fighting among themselves, but were as shell-shocked as the Millwall crowd last month. City are not supposed to resemble Millwall.