In football as in life, timing is everything. There were a few groans when Philippe Senderos’ name was read about from the people who sit around around me as Martin Jol picked the Swiss centre back for the first time since his disappointing display against Swansea. But Senderos, an immensely likely man and much improved since his unfairly heavily maligned early days at Arsenal, has made very few mistakes this season and it was apt that he was the man who soared to send a 90th-minute free-kick from John Arne Riise into far corner and snatch a come-from-behind victory that was a little cruel on Wigan.
For much of a tactically compelling contest, it appeared as though Fulham would be frustrated both by Roberto Martinez’s clever tinkering with the formula that has put the Latics, previously consigned to the drop by so many of football’s commentariat, in sight of safety. The inventive system which the Spaniard has bravely adopted to offer both strength in the numbers and the ability to break at speed into the wide areas – thereby playing to Wigan’s strengths – seemed to befuddle a bemused Fulham who found it particularly difficult to prize open the visiting defence.
Damien Duff spooned an early chance over the bar from an inventive Danny Murphy free-kick and the Republic of Ireland winger, who has been in superb form in recent weeks, also sent an effort just wide after playing a one-two with Mahamadou Diarra and surging into the penalty area. Wigan’s attacks might have been sporadic but they kept possession well and looked a real threat on the counter-attack. Aaron Hughes, switched to right back in the absence of the Stephen Kelly, had to use all of his nous to shackle the lively Victor Moses.
The second half proved far more open and Martinez’s side took a lead that was perhaps merited if only for their greater adventure after the break. Boyce carried the ball deep into Fulham territory and found substitute Connor Salmon, a young striker who has shown signs of real talent since his arrival from Scotland, and although Senderos managed to nick the ball away from Salmon it returned to Boyce who cut inside purposefully and drove an unstoppable shot into the far corner.
It was a terrific strike – but Wigan’s joy was incredibly short-lived. Fulham, who had looked frightfully fitful for much of the game, found an equaliser just 71 seconds later. Pavel Pogrebnyak, who looks like one of the signs of the season having come in on a short-term deal from Stuttgart on transfer deadline day, drove a classy finish into bottom corner after a clever turn bought him a little time and space just outside the box. The goal owed much to Moussa Dembele’s mazy little dribble through midfield – and the relief around the Cottage was tangible.
That equaliser gave the home side their confidence back and we saw some more of the mesmerising short passing and interplay behind the midfield and linking with the raiding John Arne Riise, who had another superb game at left back. The supposed controversy over whether Pogrebnyak’s close range finish from a Riise cross is rather irrelevant in retrospect – it certainly looked marginal – but the man itself didn’t complain too much, perhaps disbelieving after he had the bar from such a great position in the first place. Another effort from the Russian came back off the post and when Gary Caldwell’s sliced clearance hit Senderos and found the side netting rather than nestling nicely in the corner it seemed destined to end 1-1.
Jol, criticised in some quarters like previous Fulham managers for not making changes to win games, withdrew Murphy in favour of teenager Kerim Frei and the little winger’s lively cameo frightened the life out of Wigan’s tiring defenders. His first contribution was one of those trademark dribbles and another run produced a particularly senseless challenge from Boyce, allowing Senderos to complete Fulham’s late escape act.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Hughes, Senderos, Hangeland, J.A. Riise; Diarra, Murphy (Frei 81); Duff, Dembele, Dempsey; Pogrebnyak. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Baird, Briggs, Etuhu, Kasami, Johnson.
GOALS: Pogrebnyak (58), Senderos (89).
WIGAN ATHLETIC (4-1-2-3): Al-Habsi; Boyce, Figueroa, Alcaraz, G. Caldwell; McCarthy (Watson 75); McArthur, Beausejour; Moses, Gomez (Maloney 56), Di Santo (Sammon 33). Subs (not used): Politt, Gohouri, Diame, Jones.
BOOKED: G. Caldwell, Boyce.
GOAL: Boyce (57).
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).