Last 32 beckons for Wigan Athletic

Ian Aspinall brings us a preview of tonight's vital European tie for Wigan Athletic.

Last 32 beckons for Wigan Athletic

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November 28th, 2013

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Last season’s FA Cup winners are on the verge of the last 32 in the Europa League. A home victory against the Belgian Pro League side SV Zulte Waregem on Thursday night will almost certainly guarantee qualification to the knockout stages of the competition.

For a team who were still playing non-league football in 1978 and in the bottom division of the Football League until 1997, it will be another significant landmark in what has been an incredible rise in their stature.

Prior to this year’s Europa League the club’s international adventures had been limited to friendlies and pre-season tours. Owen Coyle’s team has so far acquitted themselves very well against some experienced European opposition. A creditable opening away 0-0 draw in Belgium was followed by a convincing 3-1 home victory against the Slovenians NK Maribor, and then a home 1-1 draw with Russians Rubin Kazan was followed by their first defeat; 1-0 in Kazan.

A victory for Latics could put four points between themselves and their main rivals for second place in UEFA Europa League Group D. Rubin Kazan have already qualified, and should the Russian club avoid defeat against Maribor, Wigan would join them in the round of 32 by winning against Zulte.

Wigan have had a mixed start to their Championship campaign and currently sit in mid-table. Manager Owen Coyle will be hoping for a positive reaction from his players after they experienced a promotion setback at the weekend when they went down 1-0 at home to Brighton. 

In contrast, Zulte are the form team in the Belgium League; having won five and drawn three of their last eight games. Last season’s League runners-up moved into second spot in the current standings with a 3-1 win over Mechelen on Saturday. The Belgians will believe they still have a good chance to qualify after a 1-0 victory at NK Maribor in the last round of matches.

Wigan will be hoping that they can make it a trio of English league representatives in the last 32, with Spurs having already qualified and Swansea likely to do so. Manchester United loanee Nick Powell has already bagged three Europa League goals in four games and he could pose the biggest threat to the Belgians.

The games are coming thick and fast for the Latics, with ten games to be played by the end of December, but they will want to make it an historic European night on Thursday. The prospect of qualifying for the last 32 – and maybe bringing one of the giants of European competition to the DW Stadium – is now tantalizingly within their reach.

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