Within touching distance of glory (and Leicester), the end of our FA Cup run heralds the beginning of the league run-in that could see us return to the Championship. Having had a taste of what it could be like if we get there, now is the time to ensure it becomes a reality.
The next three league games are all important, but throw up two different challenges. Bolton and Southend are must-win games because everyone else has been beating them this season, Portsmouth is must-not-lose or it allows a promotion rival to move into a position we would want to be in.
Elimination after a grueling 120 minutes of football on Tuesday night was the worst outcome, tiring us out before an important run of fixtures without the reward of progressing to the next round. However, Mark Robins has mitigated the fatigue by having rested players in mid-week, with the bonus of demonstrating that fringe players can come into the side and make an impact.
The team for this game is likely to be closer to the starting line-up for last week’s league match against Bristol Rovers than the one that lined up against Birmingham on Tuesday. While the 3-5-2 shape with Amadou Bakayoko and Maxime Biamou leading the line was effective, the combined factors of the opposition being very different from a mid-table Championship side and concerns over fatigue make it unlikely we’ll see a repeat in this game.
The return of Liam Walsh, Jamie Allen, Callum O’Hare and Sam McCallum to the starting line-up will hopefully inject the dynamism, energy and quality on the ball to keep things fresh and move Bolton’s defence around. Michael Rose should be fit enough to return too, with his ability to take the ball out of defence potentially another important way in which we can hurt Bolton. The availability of new loan signing Ryan Giles is another boost, with his pace from the bench likely to be a useful asset for the remaining months of the season.
The biggest selection conundrum is who leads the attack, with the decision between an out-of-touch Matt Godden and Maxime Biamou, who played a draining 120 minutes of football on Tuesday. My suspicion is that Mark Robins is still of the belief that Godden is our best striker and will back him to play himself back into form here. Furthermore, we might be better off saving Biamou for Tuesday night’s game against Portsmouth.
Last Time We Met
Had this season been less positive than it’s been thus far, our 0-0 draw with a Bolton Wanderers side with an average age of 19 would have pointed towards as a key demonstration of this team’s failings.
Although we were unlucky with offside calls and at least one cast-iron penalty shout, the inability to take ruthless advantage of a team of teenagers underlined the lack of assertiveness and cutting edge that has intermittently reared its head this season.
Manager – Keith Hill
Having been handed the hospital pass of taking over a side 15 points from safety after six games and with just one day of the transfer window to do a summer’s worth of recruitment within the spending restrictions set by the EFL for the club’s recent administration, the responsibility for Bolton’s current status as League One basement dwellers clearly lays beyond Keith Hill’s remit.
While there has been some improvement since Hill’s arrival, along with a host of new signings, it took too long for an impact to be made to keep Bolton within a realistic shot of survival, with morale dipping as soon as that became apparent. The remainder of the season is about regaining some respectability and putting in place the foundations for a promotion push from League Two next year – although it is likely to be another rebuild due to the number of loan players in the squad.
Who To Look Out For?
Bolton’s squad right now is a mish-mash between the remaining players left from their time in the Championship, completely raw youngsters and the free and loan signings Hill has been able to cobble together to plug the gaps in the team.
The best pieces of transfer business look to be Daryl Murphy in attack and Josh Emmanuel at right-back. Murphy is the kind of experienced focal point striker that most teams at this level would adore. Emmanuel has stood out for being one of those rare full-backs at this level that is strong both defensively and going forward.
The recent loan signings of defensive trio Brandon Fleming, Toto Nsiala and Kean Bryan look to have tightened up Bolton’s defence significantly. Nsiala is a physical battler, pairing up with the ball-playing Bryan in central defence, while Fleming looks a very consistent presence at left-back. Anyone expecting a walkover here is going to be in for a surprise.
In midfield, Jason Lowe and Luke Murphy are the key remnants from the club from before this season. The duo’s experience and solidity have become a key reference point which the rest of the team has been built around, allowing the more energetic Ethan Hamilton and prize youngsters Ronan Darcy and Dennis Politic to push forward.
Where This Game Will Be Won or Lost
The main concern here is that this is a must-win game for us, while Bolton have absolutely nothing to lose. At his best, Keith Hill is a manager who can frustrate opponents by playing a combination of physical and attractive football. Establishing dominance early, hopefully by getting a goal, could be important in preventing Bolton establishing a foothold in this game.
The battle between Kyle McFadzean and Daryl Murphy should be keenly contested, but we are going to have to ensure that by looking to contain Murphy, we don’t end up providing the space in which Bolton’s energetic midfielders can push forward and get shots off on goal.
This feels like a particularly important game for Matt Godden at this juncture of his Coventry City career. The lustre of those back-to-back hat-tricks has faded, leaving him with a record of scoring in just five of his 20 league appearances for the club. If he can’t get onto the scoresheet here, then Mark Robins will surely be considering his role as a starter for the remainder of the campaign.