- Manchester City v Wigan, FA Cup final preview
Wembley stage offers glory amid tough campaign
The FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan is live on ESPN this weekend. Coverage starts at 8am.
For Wigan Athletic, making their first-ever appearance in an FA Cup final, the week leading up to such a momentous occasion should be one of both excitement and trepidation. But they have had to juggle the subplot of a relegation battle with the road to Wembley.
Wigan had the chance to haul themselves above Newcastle United and out of the Premier League drop zone with two games remaining when they faced Swansea, winners of the Capital One Cup and with only pride to play for, in their game in hand. Most had this one down as a home banker. It wasn't.
A damaging 3-2 loss, characterised by calamitous defending, leaves their top-flight future hanging by a thread, and they are now likely to need to pick up at least a point away at Champions League-chasing Arsenal on Tuesday to improve the chances of their eight-season stay in the top flight being extended.
Added to that, David Moyes' decision to swap Everton for Manchester United has led to Wigan's manager, Roberto Martinez, being installed as the clear favourite for the soon-to-be vacant Goodison Park hotseat.
Rather than spend his time talking about the FA Cup final on Thursday, Martinez found himself having to bat away questions about the Everton job.
Just how his players react to that loss to Swansea may be the crucial factor at Wembley. For many, dropping out of the Premier League will have dire consequences for their personal futures, but they must banish this thought to the back of their minds.
Wigan are assured of a place in the Europa League next season - their first foray into European competition - due to City having guaranteed a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League. But embarking on such an arduous campaign - which will begin in the third qualifying round on August 1 if they lose at Wembley - would not sit well with a 46-game Championship season.
They find themselves hit by injuries, too. Ronnie Stam damaged ankle ligaments against Swansea and will not face City. Jean Beausejour, Maynor Figueroa and the long-term injured Albert Crusat and Ivan Ramis are also in the treatment room. Martinez is short of options and desperate for Antolin Alcaraz to recover from his own injury in time for the final.
With Figueroa and Beausejour both out, there will be much responsibility on the shoulders of Roger Espinoza. He started against Swansea, but that was the only time he had been named in a starting XI since the FA Cup win at Huddersfield on February 17. He will need to show responsibility, both in an attacking sense and defensively.
Martinez can take some comfort from the two sides' recent Premier League meeting at the Etihad, in which City needed a late goal from Carlos Tevez to claim a 1-0 victory. But that's as far as the comfort goes, because Wigan have not scored a single goal in the last seven meetings between the sides, losing all of them and conceding 13 goals. They last beat City in September 2008, winning 2-1 at the DW Stadium.
While Wigan will try to keep their minds on two things at once, City have no such concerns.
Barring a miracle, they will be runners-up in the Premier League this season, sitting six points above third-placed Chelsea with only two games to go. Roberto Mancini's men have nothing else to think about but ensuring that they take the cup back to Manchester for the second time in three years.
Mancini may feel that winning the trophy is crucial if he is to prove to his paymasters that he is the right man to mount a new challenge for the league title.
Second place in the table, despite surrendering the crown to their arch rivals, is no disgrace, but the lack of success in Europe - City were dumped out in the group stage of the Champions League for a second successive season - is of concern.
Beat Wigan on Saturday and another trophy in the cabinet should, for now, put an end to the rumours over Mancini's future. Lose, and the back pages of the papers are sure to speculate that he will be shown the door.
With Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United, Mancini will be desperate to get another crack at the Premier League, while there is uncertainty about how the Red Devils will move forward under Moyes. But if he fails to bring back the cup, he may not get the chance to capitalise on any instability across the city.
Reserve goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, who has proved an able deputy to Joe Hart in the domestic cups, will continue between the sticks, even though he has said he wants to leave the Etihad at the end of the season in search of first team football. In five FA Cup appearances this season, he has kept four clean sheets, conceding just one goal.
Doubts over the fitness of Yaya Toure - who scored the only goal in the final against Stoke City two years ago - have been allayed by the player himself, and his power and athleticism in the centre of the park will, as usual, be key.
If Wigan do upset the overwhelming odds in City's favour, they will become the first team to win the cup in their first final since Wimbledon back in 1988.
Man City player to watch
Carlos Tevez. The Argentine forward has long proven to be a thorn in the side of the Latics, not only scoring the winner in the most recent league meeting but in netting seven goals in 12 Premier League appearances against them. With Wigan short on numbers at the back, Tevez's movement is likely to cause problems throughout.
Wigan Athletic player to watch
Shaun Maloney. No matter what fate befalls Wigan in the Premier League over the course of the next week, it is difficult to see Maloney remaining at the DW beyond this season. In the second half of this campaign, he has become the creative fulcrum for the Latics, and his two goals and three assists in his last seven appearances only tell a fraction of the story.
Sergio Aguero v Gary Caldwell. Scotland international Caldwell has never been blessed by pace and, at the age of 31, that is not going to change. With Roberto Martinez likely to favour a high, pressing line, space could be left in behind for Aguero to exploit. Unless Wigan get their organisation right, it could be a long afternoon for Caldwell and his colleagues in defence.
Prediction and Betting
Fairytales often prove to be exactly that and, with the injury problems stacking up for Wigan, it's difficult to see anything but this final going to form. Man City win.
Final score: 2-1.