By Chris Harris
Those who have been confidently predicting Wigan's demise are still waiting for Paul Jewell's men to falter.
Last season some 'experts' condemned the Latics to the briefest of stays in the top flight; instead they were the Premiership's surprise package, scaling the heights of second place at one point before settling for a mid-table finish and a place in the Carling Cup Final.
This time around, so the theory goes, Wigan are apparently susceptible to 'second-season syndrome', a condition which afflicts teams who no longer have the ability to shock and will therefore be 'found out'. How has Jewell responsed to that diagnosis? He's changed half of his first team.
All of which means Wigan are still something of a surprise package. Just ask Bolton. They have seen off most teams at the Reebok this season - but not the Latics. Once again Jewell's gems are floating around mid-table. Once again the doom-mongers have been silenced.
We spoke to Phil Wilkinson, Sports Editor of the Wigan Observer, ahead of Arsenal's visit to the JJB Stadium. Read on to find out which of Wigan's new recruits have impressed, the players they miss the most and the tactics Jewell is likely to deploy tonight.
THE STORY SO FAR
"The excitement is not the same as it was in the first season but Wigan still get good crowds and everyone is still made up about being in the Premiership. The club is doing a good job getting people along, the Chelsea game two days before Christmas is on the TV so tickets for that game - even though Chelsea are the champions - are £15. Wigan have done a few things like that - bring a friend for a fiver, kids get in for a pound - and not just for the less glamorous game. I thought Wigan would find it harder on the pitch this season but then again at least half of the team is different. Paul Jewell still has the same approach, he plays a 4-4-2 and Wigan's success is still based on a strong work ethic but it's hard to assess them because there have been so many changes in personnel. Jewell has lost Chimbonda and Bullard but he overall he has strengthened the squad, the players he has are better now."
"Chris Kirkland has done a great job. He had a nasty injury at the weekend but has been fantastic. David Cotterill, a young lad who arrived from Bristol City, has been getting lots of time on the right wing because of injuries. He's probably played more than Jewell would have liked and he blows hot and cold because he is young. Emerson Boyce has done really well, Chimbonda was a cult hero at Wigan but Boyce has done a terrific job, so much so that Wigan haven't missed Chimbonda that much."
"I think Wigan have missed Bullard and Kavanagh's partnership in midfield. Everything seemed so fluent with them in the team. Now Paul Scharner has moved from centre back to central midfield and it will take him a while to get used to the new position and a midfield partner. More recently a big loss has been De Zeeuw, the captain. He contributes so much to the side, he doesn't shout that much but he commands respect."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"Jewell is pretty stringent about setting targets because he believes that distracts players and messes things up. I think Wigan could get into Europe, possibly by scraping sixth place, but then again you can't rule out the other teams above and below them either."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"Last year the home defeat against Arsenal ended Wigan's excellent start to the season and four or five defeats followed. They also dropped off after Christmas but I think they will be stronger this season. I don't think they will go down, they have got such a good work ethic."
"I don't think Jewell will change the way they play to accommodate Arsenal. There will be few surprises in his team because he's never carried a big squad and it is quite depleted through injury and suspension. He's got to stick with what he's got. Kirkland should be fine but McMillan, De Zeeuw, Valencia and Teale are all injured while Scharner is suspended."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"It was tremendous being part of the last game at Highbury in May. Jewell had said earlier in the season that it would be his worst nightmare to have to go to Highbury on the final day needing three points but just to be involved was great. Arsenal gave the Wigan fans T-shirts too and they are still cropping up. The day belonged to Arsenal, and it was a really entertaining game with cracking weather. Henry won't play tonight but his performance at Wigan last November - when he scored twice - was one of the best performances I have seen against Wigan in the Premiership."
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