ROBERTO Martinez is preparing to release ‘a caged lion’ on Bolton Wanderers this afternoon – in the shape of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
The Oman No.1 joined Latics from Bolton in the summer of 2010 on a season-long loan deal, which was made permanent last summer after a cheque for £3million winged its way from the DW Stadium to the Reebok.
Despite being at Wigan for almost 16 months, this afternoon will be the first time Al Habsi will have come up against Bolton – whom he joined from Lyn Oslo in January, 2006.
Because of the terms of his loan agreement, Al Habsi was prevented from facing his parent club in both Premier League matches last term, as well as the FA Cup fourth-round meeting – plus the ensuing replay – between the two sides.
Al Habsi readily admits this afternoon’s game will be a special moment for himself – as the two clubs closest to his heart go head to head for local pride.
And after being kept on a leash for all four derbies last term, his manager is tipping the 29-year-old to make his mark in style.
“I know he was really disappointed at not being able to face Bolton last season, and he has been like a caged lion looking forward to this game,” Martinez said.
“As a human being, when you’re not allowed to do something, it’s natural to want it more.
“I’ve no worries about Ali over-stepping the mark, though, because he is such a calm, peaceful man, a steadying influence.
“He’ll approach this game like any other, and I’m sure he’ll put in his usual consistent performance.”
All eyes will clearly be on Al Habsi, who has been Wigan’s stand-out player again this term after sweeping the board at last season’s Player of the Year awards night.
Martinez, though, says the big man will not have any added motivation to impress against the club that let him go.
“I wouldn’t say Ali has a point to prove to Bolton or to anyone. He’s just not that kind of person,” Martinez admitted.
“All he wants to do is focus on the opportunity in front of him, and be the best goalkeeper he can be.
“He clearly still has strong feelings for Bolton, but he was determined to play every week and has found his new home here at Wigan.
“When he first arrived here, he had a massive challenge ahead of him with two established goalkeepers in front of him in Mike Pollitt and Chris Kirkland.
“He had to fight really hard for his opportunity but, when it came, he took it with both hands.
“He is still a young man in terms of being a goalkeeper, and his best five years are coming up for him and for us.
“We know that playing for Wigan Athletic is a special thing for him, and he is a tremendous ambassador for our football club.”
The signing of Al Habsi was always Martinez’s top priority over the summer and, after weeks of negotiations with Wanderers, a deal was finally done.
Not that there weren’t a few sleepless nights along the way.
“I was very worried at one point that we wouldn’t get him,” Martinez revealed.
“But we pushed so hard for so long and we got our man in the end.
“The thing was with Ali, he developed such a strong bond with the fans, and that is so incredibly rare for a loan player to do.
“He has continued that into this season, his form has continued to be outstanding, and he is a big asset to our football club going forward.”