Wigan Athletic slipped nearer to the Championship drop zone with another away defeat, this time at promotion contenders West Bromwich Albion.
Jay Rodriguez grabbed a goal in each half as the Baggies moved up to third place in the Championship table.
Latics struggled to contain the Baggies in the first half and they went ahead after only eight minutes when Rodriguez found time and space in the box to place his header past Christian Walton.
Latics were much improved in the second half and particularly after the introduction of substitute Callum McManaman on 54 minutes, but just when it looked like the visitors might equalise Rodriguez smashed home a volley from 25 yards to consolidate the Baggies advantage.
The visitors might have reduced the arrears late on when Reece James’ audacious free kick deceived Baggies Sam Johnstone but much to the keeper’s relief the ball struck the base of the post.
Paul Cook made four changes from the defeat to Birmingham City, with Chey Dunkley returning at centre back and Dan Burn moving to left back. Gavin Massey started on the wing, Callum Connolly came into midfield and Joe Garner started up front.
Latics had an early shout for a penalty when Josh Windass went down in the box but referee Robert Jones wasn’t interested in the appeals.
On eight minutes Latics fell behind when Dwight Gayle’s cross found the unmarked Rodriguez who placed his header into the corner of the net.
Gayle went off soon afterwards with a hamstring strain and was replaced by substitute Hal Robson-Kanu but the Baggies continued to cause Latics’ shaky defence plenty of problems.
Robson-Kanu forcing an excellent low save from Walton at his near post after 19 minutes.
The Latics’ keeper made another top quality save 10 minutes later, when Harvey Barnes’ deflected looping cross looked destined for the net until Walton’s late intervention.
Latics were probably a little lucky to be only one down at the interval and it was obvious that changes needed to be made at half time. Windass and Garner had been particularly ineffective but Cook left it until 54 minutes before withdrawing Windass and introducing McManaman following the chants of the Latics fans.
The FA Cup winner proceeded to have his best game since returning to the club, tormenting the Baggies defence and creating numerous goalscoring opportunities.
Albion full back Kieran Gibbs was soon in the referee’s book for fouling McManaman and their captain Jake Livermore soon followed for another foul on the winger.
From the resulting free kick, James’ delivery found Massey at the back post, but his rising shot just cleared the Baggies crossbar.
Walton produced another top drawer save to deny Harvey Barnes’ effort from distance, but he couldn’t prevent Rodriguez’s second goal soon afterwards when the striker’s 25-yard volley smashed into the Latics’ net.
Lee Evans replaced the tiring Massey on 76 minutes and Will Grigg replaced the ineffective Garner a minute later.
McManaman continued to terrorise the Albion back line and despite only playing less than half the game he was the Latics Man of the Match along with Reece James.
James nearly pulled a goal back on 86 minutes with an audacious free kick, curling the ball low around the defensive wall and deceiving the Baggies keeper but unfortunately hitting the base of the post.
McManaman was almost unplayable and when he turned several defenders in the penalty area it looked as though he would score but Ahmed Hegazi managed to deflect the ball off target.
McManaman then teed up Grigg at the back post but the substitute couldn’t quite get enough power on his header to beat Johnstone.
Latics are on a worryingly poor run of form and are now only four points off the relegation zone at the half way point in the season.
A much improved second half performance by Latics was instigated by the creativity and trickery of McManaman. The enigmatic winger must surely now be given a starting place against Swansea City on Saturday.
It is easy in retrospect to criticise team selections, but Paul Cook’s decision to persist with the ineffective Windass and the selection of Joe Garner was a mistake at the Hawthorns.
It is now time to re-evaluate his attacking line-up with Will Grigg the obvious choice to come in alongside McManaman at the Liberty Stadium.