Captain. Leader. Legend. - Paul Thomas
Bolton Wanderers, being Bolton Wanderers, have started finding new and different ways of testing your heart...
This was only Bolton's second away win of the season, and of course, they couldn't do it the easy way. This looked like a very different Bolton than fans have become accustomed to this season, looking confident in both offense and defense. This did not stop them from letting the match slip into an extremely nervy finish, but after 5 long minutes of stoppage time the whistle blew and the Wanderers came away with 3 shiny points.
Of late, Bolton have grown quite used to getting off to a poor start then spending the rest of the match playing catch up. This was not the case tonight, as Super Kevin Davies took the lead on 96 seconds, in what can only be described as a dream start. The club captain smashed the ball home at the near post, after being fed by Chris Eagles (who else?).
The early goal undoubtedly set the tone for the match, and Bolton looked very unBolton-like indeed. Not only was the midfield retaining possession and launching convincing attacks, but the defenders were actually shutting down any attempts that Blackburn did make. Dougie Freedman went with a back four of Tyrone Mears-Zat Knight-Sam Ricketts-Stephen Warnock, which seemed to work quite well. At the moment there is not really a stand out, obvious ideal back four, but this combination might be it. Bolton were in Freedman's preferred 4-2-3-1, with Jay Spearing and Keith Andrews acting as the midfield anchor. The creative 3 were Chung-Yong Lee, Jacob Butterfield, and Chris Eagles, and they proved to be very dynamic. Kevin Davies occupied his normal position at the head of attack.
The first half was mainly one-way traffic, although Bolton did not mount any terribly convincing attempts on goal. A stand out point was the diversity of attack. Earlier in the season, most Bolton attacks flowed directly through Eagles, and while he was still influential, Butterfield, Knight, Warnock, Andrews, and Spearing all put in some decent chances, making Paul Robinson by far the busier goalkeeper.
Bolton's first half was marked by calm passing, careful control, and precise defending, all things that have been absent for a very very long time. Blackburn looked to try to change that at the beginning of the second period, with limited success. The Rovers earned a free kick in dangerous area, but the players in the box appeared to have forgotten they were meant to move toward the ball, and it was an easy collection for Adam Bogdan. Just a few minutes later, Blackburn pressure saw them get two corners in a row, but once again they wasted these chances without worrying Bogdan.
Immediately after that, Bolton Wanderers came back, and a scorching Butterfield shot from 25 yards out forced an acrobatic save from Robinson. Four minutes later, Chung-Yong achieved what Butterfield couldn't and doubled Bolton's lead. Robinson could only parry Eagles' free kick, and Chungy pounced on the rebound to send it home.
However, instead of putting the game further away from the hosts, it seemed to provide inspiration for the Rovers. Mauro Formica and substitute Colin Kazim-Richards proved to be particular thorns in Bolton's side, drawing Adam Bogdan into his first real contribution of the game. In the 83rd minute Jacob Rhodes lent his side a bit of hope, nodding a Kazim-Richards cross past Bogdan.
The following 13 minutes were pure torture, as both sides struck out to get a goal back. Things only got nervier on the Bolton end, as the final substitution of Matt Mills for Chung-Yong Lee created a five man backline practically inviting Blackburn pressure. But somehow the Men in White managed to hold on and sealed the win.
This was a massive match for Bolton. The three points pushed them within 6 points of a playoff position, something that will grow more vital as the table begins to solidify, but more importantly they put in one of the best performances from a Bolton side in a long time. Dougie Freedman's plan is clearly working. There are still shadows of the tactically, defensively inept side that blundered down into the Championship but they are fading. It is of course early days yet, but this is the most optimistic I've felt after a Bolton match in a long time indeed.