Mark Hughes starts Southampton reign in style with FA Cup win at Wigan

Paul Wilson at the DW Stadium on 18 March 2018

The FA Cup semi-finals will be an all-Premier League affair after all. Wigan Athletic did their best to keep the League One flag flying but after eliminating three top-flight opponents in previous rounds they met their match in Southampton, who were anonymous at first but managed two goals and a missed penalty in the second half.

“I couldn’t ask any more of my players, we have represented League One in a very good way,” Paul Cook, the Wigan manager, said. “In the first half especially we were excellent, but though we felt we were playing well we probably didn’t work their goalkeeper enough. I was a bit fearful at half-time because we hadn’t got anything after being on top. Sure enough Southampton grew into the game and we found it hard to keep up our intensity.”

Wigan were by far the most positive team in the first half, as a staggering corner count of 10-0 suggests. They did not manage to fashion many clearcut chances, though they certainly matched their opponents for passing and movement, with Nathan Byrne putting in another excellent attacking display at right-back. The half-time conversations rightly centred how no one would have guessed two divisions separated the teams, although that actually did Wigan scant justice. If anyone looked like a Premier League team it was the home side.

The only worry at that point was that Wigan had not succeeded in taking the lead from any of the goalmouth situations they had created. It was not a case of profligate finishing, they just could not find the final pass to split open the Southampton defence. Chey Dunkley came close midway through the first half but could not turn the ball in after Byrne’s shot took a deflection. Michael Jacobs went on a solo run past most of the Southampton defence only to choose the wrong option when he reached the area. When he sent in a cross for Will Grigg just before the interval the striker could not quite reach it.

All Southampton had managed before the break were a couple of hopeful shots from Sofiane Boufal and Mario Lemina, though the visitors emerged looking a little more determined and should have gone in front just before the hour when a rare Byrne mistake led to the clearest opening of the game. The full-back’s square ball ran straight through to the unmarked Manolo Gabbiadini by the penalty spot. The Italian should have scored but he too appeared to be taken by surprise and a less than decisive finish allowed Christian Walton to come out and close him down.

The Wigan goalkeeper also saved when Pierre-Emile Højbjerg headed powerfully towards goal from a Southampton corner, though when Dusan Tadic sent over another one a minute later the Danish midfielder player made the breakthrough with his first goal in English football. Perhaps Wigan were expecting a header, for when Højbjerg met the corner with a first-time shot neither Dan Burn nor Walton on the line could keep it out. Southampton had won three corners to Wigan’s 11 at that point. Crucially they were able to make one count.

Cook was not going to give up on his Wembley dream without a fight, and his response was to send on two forwards in Ryan Colclough and Nick Powell, even though the latter was barely over a hamstring injury. It appeared Wigan might be punished for their ambition when Burn brought Gabbiadini down in the area to concede a penalty, but though the striker took the spot-kick himself and struck his effort firmly, Walton guessed correctly, springing to his left to make a wonderful save.

That at least allowed Wigan to keep hoping for the last 20 minutes, though Southampton brought their experience to bear to close the game out. The substitute Noel Hunt was unable to take a difficult opportunity as the match moved into stoppage time, before the end to Wigan’s remarkable run was finally sealed by Cédric Soares. The full-back came up with an inspired headed touch to take out Callum Elder from Nathan Redmond’s pass, and once in the penalty area found it easy to sidefoot past Walton. Two new scorers took Southampton to Wembley. “It’s difficult to say it’s a new start because it is the middle of the season,” Højbjerg said. “But we have a new manager and we are at Wembley so it feels like things are looking up.”

Mark Hughes did not disagree. “In the short time I’ve been here I have seen good quality and application,” he said. “Maybe some players at the club have been a little bit hurt by the criticism that has come their way, but we made good decisions today. We knew we needed to be a little more dominant in the second half, and we were able to step it up. We could have won 3-0 with the penalty, but that would not have been a fair reflection of the game.”

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