Wolves 1 Wigan Athletic 2

Antolin Alcaraz clears from Stephen Ward
Antolin Alcaraz clears from Stephen Ward

FIRST-half goals from Hugo Rodallega and Tom Cleverley gave Roberto Martinez the perfect Christmas present in the West Midlands yesterday afternoon.

With West Ham winning at Fulham earlier in the day, the clash between the Premier League’s bottom two took on extra significance.

And Latics rose to the occasion, putting Wolves to the sword with some magnificent counter-attacking and delivering some real festive cheer to the sizeable away contingent that made the trip down the M6.

Rodallega grabbed the first goal after good work from James McArthur, before the Colombian played in Cleverley for number two with less than a quarter of the game gone.

Substitute Steven Fletcher pulled a goal back for Wolves with four minutes remaining, but Ali Al Habsi and the defence held firm to secure a priceless three points.

Martinez had made three changes to the side that drew 0-0 at Goodison Park in their last outing, two enforced and one tactical.

With Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa suspended, that meant starts for McArthur and Ronnie Stam, with Gary Caldwell passed fit enough to replace brother Steven at the back.

With both sides knowing a defeat would see them propping up the table on Boxing Day evening, Latics came up with the perfect start when top scorer Rodallega gave them the lead with only nine minutes gone.

A Ben Watson corner was only half-cleared to McArthur on the edge of the penalty area, and the Scot scooped the ball back into the danger zone.

Rodallega cleverly got his body in between the ball and Richard Stearman and, although he was being fouled by the defender, steered the ball past Wayne Hennessey into the bottom corner.

Latics were indebted to referee Mike Dean, who saw the offence but elected to play a great advantage that benefited the visitors.

Rodallega was particularly pleased, having been spared the pressure of taking a spot-kick on a ground where he missed from 12 yards last term.

Latics were then grateful to Al Habsi for keeping them ahead within moments of the restart, a free kick from Nenad Milijas being diverted goalbound by Stearman only for the Oman stopper to dive on the ball on the goalline.

And a good start was made even better when Latics went two up on the 20-minute mark, with Rodallega again heavily involved.

The Colombian picked up the ball 30 yards out, feigned to shoot, but played in a lovely ball to Cleverley, who side-footed past Hennessey with aplomb.

Stephen Hunt headed over from David Edwards’ right-wing cross as Wolves tried for a response, but Latics nearly made it three at the other end when Rodallega almost threaded a lovely ball in for Charles N’Zogbia, the winger just failing to control it with only Hennessey in front of him.

It was real end-to-end stuff, despite the stakes being so high, and Al Habsi again came to Wigan’s aid with 10 minutes of the first half remaining.

A Milijas free-kick deflected off Cleverley in the wall and appeared to wrong-foot the goalkeeper, only for Al Habsi to stick out his right left and deflect the ball away from the danger area.

The home side were getting increasingly desperate as they struggled to break Wigan down, and only an over-hit ball from N’Zogbia prevented Cleverley having another one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Predictably, Wolves threw everything at Wigan in the opening exchanges of the second half, with Matt Jarvis replacing David Edwards down the left-hand side.

But the defence was successfully keeping the Wolves from the door, Al Habsi a virtual spectator until the hour mark.

Latics were still looking the team most likely, N’Zogbia and Rodallega in particular looking dangerous on the break every time a home attack broke down.

On one occasion, just after the hour mark, N’Zobgia weaved his way across the penalty area only to be grounded by Ronald Zubar at the expense of a deserved caution.

McArthur was having a blinder on his first Premier League start, and linked up well with Rodallega down the right only to be sold just short by the return pass with the goal at his mercy.

After Fletcher appeared off the bench to give Wolves more punch up front, Wigan squandered another gilt-edged chance when N’Zogbia attempted to put Rodallega in down the right with Cleverley roaring forward in absolute acres of space down the left.

Fletcher scrambled home a consolation with four minutes left, but there was no time for the home side to push for an equaliser.

And it would have been a complete injustice on the balance of play if they had managed another.