By Chris Harris
The step up in class which faces Arsenal's youngsters tonight can be summed up in two words - Amr Zaki.
The Egyptian striker was one of the best kept secrets in football when Wigan manager Steve Bruce took him on loan in the summer. Nine goals and several outstanding performances later, Zaki is one of the hottest properties in the game.
It's fair to say that the 25-year-old will stretch Johan Djourou and company rather more than Sheffield United's strikeforce did. The Blades' spearhead was a half-fit James Beattie and he ploughed a lone and fruitless furrow as Arsenal's kids ran riot at the Emirates six weeks ago.
We asked Paul Kendrick for a Wigan perspective on Zaki, and Arsenal's opponents in general, ahead of tonight's Fourth-Round tie. Read on to find out how Wigan discovered Zaki, which striker he is similar to, why they might struggle to keep hold of the Egyptian and why the Carling Cup is a realistic target for the Latics.
THE STORY SO FAR
"Wigan are fourth from bottom in the Premier League but that doesn’t tell the story to be honest. Prior to the last couple of weeks, when they have had something of a resurgence, they were in big trouble. They lost four games in a row, two of which they didn’t deserve. They got absolutely robbed at home to Middlesbrough and you might have seen on Match of the Day when they got robbed at Liverpool as well. As a result of that the confidence was really low and they got hammered 4-0 at home to Aston Villa and then lost 2-0 at Fulham; they were in a real rut. I think the away win at Portsmouth got them back on track and they really should have beaten Stoke at the weekend. Overall they started well, had a bit of a dip, but hopefully now they are back on fire."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"It is pretty obvious that Zaki has been Wigan's outstanding performer. He has been the find of the season in the Premier League - he is absolutely brilliant. Everything Wigan have done goes through him, Emile Heskey supports him, but Zaki has been the man. I must mention Titus Bramble too who has been in for a lot of stick during his career but he has been man of the match in the last two games and has been up there behind Zaki as Wigan’s player of the season so far, he has been outstanding.
"You would think looking back at his record that somebody would have snapped up Zaki before Wigan did. He has played in 50-odd internationals and averages almost a goal every other game, and he scored a few goals in the African Nations Cup that Egypt won. You can’t believe that nobody has taken a chance on him. Steve Bruce was the only one bold enough to bring him to England but wasn’t quite bold enough to take him on a permanent deal. We have got him for the season and he has just been fantastic. He has taken everything in his stride, he’s been getting extra attention from the media but nothing seems to faze him, he has just been banging them in.
"He is a big centre forward, I think Dave Whelan the Chairman likened him to Alan Shearer and he is definitely that kind of player. He has an eye for goal but he is a big strong lad and he holds the ball up well. When Wigan played at Liverpool a few weeks ago, he played up top against Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger on his own and he completely terrorised them. He was brilliant and they just couldn’t get the ball off of him. He obviously scored that cracking overhead kick and he is just basically the complete centre forward."
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
"The problem is how to keep hold of Zaki. With every passing week, Steve Bruce must be ruing the decision not to take a chance on him. I think that his club Zamalek wanted seven and a half, eight million for him which is probably not much for Arsenal but it is a massive amount for Wigan and it would have smashed their transfer record. There aren't many Egyptian players who have come over to England and done well so it was perhaps wise to tread cautiously. But as you say with every goal he bangs in that chance of a permanent transfer to Wigan becomes more problematic. Liverpool are interested in him, Manchester City are interested in him and obviously Zamalek have no obligation to sell him to Wigan, they will sell him to whoever pays the most money. Unfortunately there are clubs out there that will outbid Wigan at the moment so sadly it is a case of enjoying him while we can and probably see him move on next summer."
"They are taking the Carling Cup very, very seriously. They got to the Final two years ago and beat Arsenal of course in the last season at Highbury on away goals. They didn’t turn up to the Final unfortunately and got absolutely hammered by Manchester United but Steve Bruce sees this as a very realistic aim and a very realistic route into Europe. The full team will be on show at the Emirates, sadly minus Heskey who is definitely out of the game, but that will provide a chance for Henri Camara.
"Steve Bruce is confident to be honest. The way Wigan came back from their four successive defeats with the win against Portsmouth definitely got them back on track. They did everything but score against Stoke at the weekend and obviously after what has happened to Arsenal they felt that they had to front up physically. They did that but they just couldn’t get the breakthrough and the final ball just wasn’t there from the likes of Jason Koumas and Luis Valencia. Wigan are definitely back on track though and in some degree of form so they will be giving it everything at the Emirates."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"How do you scout a team which hardly ever plays? From one side of the coin it is great to not have to face the established stars like Fabregas and Adebayor but it seems as if these kids are every bit as good if not better in the future. They absolutely wiped the floor with Sheffield United in the last round and they have obviously got big futures. They won’t be as experienced as the regular first teamers but they have got just enough eagerness and quality for the future and I think that it will be a stern test for Wigan tomorrow."