CHERRIES’ recent acquaintances with Wigan Athletic had been largely positive. A superb display in last season’s FA Cup third round at the DW was followed by a replay at Dean Court where, again, the apparent lesser mortals were not disgraced despite defeat.
The two sides were two divisions apart then. Not so now. Yet Eddie Howe’s side are still lugging around that underdog tag when they visit places like Wigan. It is like a ball and chain around Howe’s ankle.
When does the Championship stop becoming a ‘new experience’ for a promoted team? Arguably, that post-match defence was put firmly to bed during a recent run that had seen Cherries chalk off four games without defeat.
They were resolute at Brighton, dominant at home to Yeovil and made Sheffield Wednesday look like a League One club in waiting at Hillsborough.
Don’t forget, that was a Sheffield Wednesday side that thumped Leeds 6-0 on Saturday. Perhaps the only dubiety that remains is silly attempts to pre-empt or second guess this crazy, crazy division.
In one last bid to predict with any kind of certainty, though, on this performance Wigan will achieve automatic promotion back to the Premier League.
That is not to say Cherries were steamrollered here. Far from it. But there is a gulf between the two clubs, embodied by the likes of James McArthur, Ben Watson and, in particular, Nick Powell.
Manchester United saw fit to pay Crewe a fee rising to around £6million for Powell before loaning him to Wigan.
He will play regularly for United in the future – there is no doubt about that – and but for Lee Camp, he could have strolled off to a standing ovation midway through the first half having secured all three points for his new club.
Tall in stature, Powell’s ghostly movement and clever feet caused Cherries no end of problems during an opening 25 minutes that saw Wigan threaten to make the game a procession.
Uwe Rosler has his players well-drilled and supremely organised. There was, unsurprisingly perhaps, a hint of German thrust about the way they smothered Cherries and pressed high to stop Howe’s side making any sort of progress into the final third.
In Powell, McArthur and Callum McManaman, Rosler also had a creative element of Premier League class.
The first five minutes was relentless from the hosts and concluded with Marc-Antoine Fortune opening the scoring. Powell had already tested Camp with a curving right-foot shot a minute earlier, but Fortune’s strike was exquisite.
Powell and Chris McCann linked well down the left, before the striker lashed home on the turn from inside the penalty box. Cherries were hurt and had little time to catch their breath.
After McArthur had blazed horribly wide from distance, Camp was forced to make the first of several key saves. The Cherries goalkeeper rushed from his line and stayed big as McManaman burst into the penalty area and set himself.
Powell should have doubled Wigan’s lead after just 13 minutes but turned Fortune’s cross from the left over the bar when inside the six-yard box. Camp then saved well as Powell’s dipping drive from around 25 yards threatened to squirm underneath him.
Matt Ritchie tested Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi for the first time with a shot from the edge of the box on 25 minutes, but Camp was called into action again moments later when he securely pouched McArthur’s effort from long range.
Cherries had settled and Camp had ensured the game was not already out of reach. At times, there was a real punch about the visiting team’s attacking. Lewis Grabban toiled and hassled.
It was Grabban who looked most likely to create an opening. He picked up Charlie Daniels’s superb long ball 10 minutes before the interval having beaten the offside trap, but his control let him down when closing in on Al Habsi.
Two more saves from Camp followed. Firstly, he saved superbly from Watson’s 25-yard free kick and then denied McArthur, who had run from deep before firing directly at the Cherries goalkeeper.
Another chance for Grabban in stoppage time saw the striker turn Simon Francis’s cross wide.
Referee Geoff Eltringham turned down Wigan’s appeals for a penalty at the start of the second half, the ball striking Eunan O’Kane close to the hand.
McArthur then blasted wide from around 20 yards and Everton loanee Ty Browning, making his first senior appearance as a half-time substitute, headed wide from a Watson corner.
Cherries were still struggling for possession, although Grabban flashed a shot across goal after Ritchie and Harry Arter had linked well in midfield.
Just before the hour, though, it was 2-0. This time, Fortune’s shot from inside the box was turned into the Cherries net by Elliott Ward.
There was now a sense that the game was gone, although McCann’s weak effort from inside the six-yard box 10 minutes after the second goal was poor. The chance came from a pin-point cross from Jean Beausejour and Camp collected with ease.
After Camp had saved yet again from McArthur and a Ritchie effort had been deflected out for a corner at the other end, Cherries wasted their best chance of the match.
Marc Pugh, on for Ryan Fraser, linked brilliantly with Daniels down the left, but Tokelo Rantie, who had replaced Arter on 64 minutes, fired wide from the cross. The South African appeared to have more time to set himself. Moments later, Pugh shot straight at Al Habsi.
Pugh’s eye-catching display almost paid dividends eight minutes from time when he again teed up Rantie. This time the striker found himself smothered by Al Habsi as he looked to shoot.
It was Cherries’ best period of the match. Ward scooped a shot over the bar in a breathless finale.
Perhaps fittingly given their own performance, however, substitute Jordi Gomez saved the game’s finest moment until the end.
The Spaniard let fly from around 25 yards in stoppage time, his curling shot leaving Camp with little chance. Three nil, although enough time remained for Al Habsi to ensure a clean sheet when saving well from both Grabban and Rantie.
Star man – Lee Camp
As he had done at Brighton on New Year’s Day, Camp (pictured) ensured Cherries went into the break still firmly in the contest.
His save to deny Callum McManaman in the first half oozed quality and confidence, while his distribution was once again all but flawless.
There was little Camp could have done about any of Wigan’s goals.
A mention should also go to Lewis Grabban, whose work-rate was outstanding. With a little more luck and but for some fine goalkeeping from Ali Al Habsi, Grabban could have been the hero.
Match facts and Daily Echo merit marks
Latics: (4-3-3) Al Habsi; Perch (Browning, h-t), Boyce, Barnett, Beausejour; McCann, Watson (Espinoza, 78), McArthur; McManaman (Gomez, 63), Powell, Fortune.
Unused subs: Crainey, Holt, McClean, Nicholls (g/k).
Cherries: (4-1-4-1) Camp 7.5; Francis 7, Elphick 7, Ward 6.5, Daniels 7; O’Kane 7; Ritchie 6.5 (Pitman, 73), Arter 6.5 (Rantie, 64), Surman 6.5, Fraser 6.5 (Pugh, 58); Grabban 7.5.
Unused subs: Cook, Harte, Hughes, Allsop (g/k).
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).
Attendance: 12,709 (272 away supporters).