After Tuesdays 3-2 defeat at Leicester, Bolton lie one point and one place outside of the Championship play-off positions. The game itself, especially the second half, had a play-off feel to it. An end to end affair it was Leicester who came out on top thanks to Jeffrey Schlupp’s fine volley ten minutes from time. A spirited second half showing from Bolton was not enough to earn a crucial point. The damage was done 5 minutes before half time as two quick fire Leicester goals overturned the early lead from N’Gog’s penalty. Both goals will have to go down as Danny Butterfield errors as he brought down Lloyd Dyer for a penalty for the first then was sucked inside allowing Dyer the freedom of the area to smash in the second. It was a puzzling decision to start with Butterfield especially with regular right back Sam Ricketts on the bench. An error Freedman seemed to recognise by replacing Butterfield in the 59th minute.
With three games to go Bolton still have a very good chance of snatching one of the play-off berths with many of the teams above them still to play each other. Considering Bolton were languishing in 20th position at the start of the February the turn around has been remarkable. After an indifferent start it is fair to say Dougie Freedman has won over the doubters with this impressive surge up the table. Starting with Burnley at the Reebok, Bolton have been on a run that has seen them win 9 out of 14 games. The foundation of this run has been excellent home form, seven straight wins and only two goals conceded. With away form still a little patchy it comes as a bit of relief that two of the remaining three games are at the Reebok starting this Saturday against Middlesbrough. However with the unpredictable nature of the Championship nothing can be taken for granted.
Looking back on the defeat to Leicester, Bolton weren’t just left counting the cost of points dropped but also a season ending injury to David N’Gog. The French striker can be frustrating at times but is certainly the best Bolton have at the moment. His tally of 8 league goals is nothing spectacular but his hold up play and selfless running will be missed for the remainder of the season. This leaves Craig Davies and Marvin Sordell as Bolton’s main striking options for the run in. With Kevin Davies seemingly out of favour it will be up to C.Davies or Sordell to step up and spearhead the attack. N’Gog isn’t the only player who Bolton will miss for the remainder of the season, Jay Spearing will also play no part in the final three games due to a broken toe. This is arguably a bigger miss than N’Gog as Spearing has been Bolton’s most consistent performer this season adding bite to the midfield and a fine range of passing. Should Bolton make the play-offs then it is hoped Spearing would be available, in the mean time Darren Pratley, Medo and young Josh Vela are the midfield options at Freedman’s disposal. There is the option of recalling Stuart Holden from his loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday but he may better off taking the game time given to him as he continues his recovery from serious injury that has kept him on the sidelines for so long.
Other key performers in Bolton’s late season form have been defenders Marcos Alonso and Craig Dawson. After a poor start to his Bolton career Alonso has been in fine form since Christmas and begun to show why Owen Coyle parted with £2million to bring him to the Reebok. Unfortunately he is now out of contract in the summer and looks set to leave on a free transfer with Fiorentina strongly linked as his likely destination. Could it be a coincidence that the contract situation and the vastly improved performances are linked!?
On loan from West Brom, Craig Dawson like Alonso, has provided Bolton with a threat from set pieces and chipped in with a number of important goals. Interestingly Dawson’s loan will expire before the final game of the season after Freedman chose not to renew it before the loan window closed. Bolton have plenty of options to step in for Dawson when he returns to West Brom but whether David Wheater, Matt Mills or Tim Ream can provide the same level of performance remains to be seen.
With Watford looking the most likely to finish third, the remaining three places in the play-offs look like a fight between five teams, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Bolton and Nottingham Forest. This Saturdays game see’s Middlesbrough visit the Reebok and they themselves are not mathematically out of the play-off picture, in fact a win would see them go just a point behind Bolton. The other two games left are Cardiff away and Blackpool at home on the final day. Hopefully two games that will see the opposition have ‘nothing to play for’ and increase Bolton’s chances of claiming vital points.
At the beginning of the season I fully expected Bolton to be amongst the front runners for the Championship title mainly due to the fact that the majority of the Premier League squad had been kept on. However after a shocking start and change of manager most Bolton fans were forced to reign in their expectations. Most fans accepted that a season of transition would be in store with a potential promotion bid next season. Expectations have since been raised again after such a strong final third of the season, and it would now be a major disappointment if Bolton failed to claim a top six finish. Ultimately it is the hope that kills you.
Written by James O’Loughlin, We Are Going Up’s Bolton Wanderers blogger
James tweets at @james_O_L