Thursday, July 26, 2007

Premiership Preview--18. Wigan Athletic

18. It's going to be one place away from safety for Wigan Athletic this season, as they'll return to the Championship after two years in England's top flight. The drop would cap off the wild ride Wigan supporters (all 4 of them, as evidenced by low attendance at JJB Stadium) have been on in recent years. Three seasons ago, Wigan clinched second place in the Championship on May 8, assuring themselves of a Premiership spot. The next year, Wigan finished in the top half of the Premiership and had a chance to play in Europe, though they turned down their place in the Intertoto Cup. Last year, they narrowly avoided relegation by beating Sheffield United on the last day of the season.

Wigan's one good signing this summer, Welsh international midfielder Jason Koumas, is an underrated move that should pay dividends for a club that was in dire need of a midfield playmaker. However, Wigan still took one step forward and two steps back with the addition (or is it subtraction??) of Titus Bramble, a once-promising defender who is now known more for his comical blunders in the back than anything else, and the departure of Lee McCulloch, who made 224 league appearances for Wigan since 2001. The club will also be counting on new acquisition Antoine Sibierski to step up and score some big goals this season. There's still a chance that Leighton Baines, the young left-back, will leave the club this summer. Baines rejected a move to Sunderland recently and it now appears that Everton, Baines' childhood team, are the front-runners for his services.

Without Paul Jewell in charge, Wigan don't look to have much chance of staying up. Jewell took Wigan from League Two in 2001 to the Premiership in 2005. New manager Chris Hutchings has been at the helm only one other time during his coaching career, a stint with Bradford City from June-November 2000. He recorded 7 wins, 4 draws, and 10 losses during that time and then was sacked. He's been assistant manager at Wigan for the past six seasons, but I thought Wigan needed to go get a more experienced, higher-profile coach this summer and they failed to do that.

The schedule is fairly navigable up through November, and Wigan will need to take as many points as they can from the 11 games they'll play to that point. November brings Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal (the latter two on the road), and it's likely they'll take no points from those three games. A trip to Bolton in early December doesn't make things much easier. Their three matches in February could turn out to be the pivotal point for Wigan this season. They're home to West Ham and Derby County, with an away match at Sunderland sandwiched in between. Wigan will probably need to take maximum points out of those games if they're in trouble heading into February, because their last five matches are as difficult as they come (Chelsea and a much improved Aston Villa side away, Tottenham, Reading, and Manchester United at home).

Bottom Line-If Wigan lose Leighton Baines this summer, give them absolutely no chance to stay up; put them below Birmingham in the end-of-year table. It may take a managerial change in the middle of the season to bring life into a club that just doesn't have the personnel to stay up.

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