Saturday, 24 April 2010

Wanderers clinch safety but Coyle is left with much to ponder

Owen Coyle left the Reebok Stadium deeply disappointed this evening, as his Bolton side saw a comfortable 2 goal lead snatched away from them. After such a promising first half display from the Wanderers, it seemed that the travelling Portsmouth fans would see their slide slump to yet another defeat, but they left in a buoyant mood as there courageous Portsmouth side grabbed a hard fought, if ultimately futile, point. Whilst Bolton were by far the better side here Portsmouth battled hard for each other in the second period, and for their courageous attitude alone probably deserved a share of the points.

The whites started in spectacular fashion, moving well going forward and looking comfortable in possession in all areas of the pitch. Jack Wilshere flourished in an attack minded Bolton side which brimmed with confidence, and it was his pin point cross which lead to the opener as the instinctive Ivan Klasnic headed home. Soon after Bolton scored again, this time Vladimir Weiss the instigator, working hard to keep the ball in on the halfway line before following up a scintillating 50yard run and perfectly timed pass to the Captain. In an intense first half hour Weiss kept his composure, sliding a diagonal ball across goal as Davies beat the offside trap to turn the ball home. Despite arriving late for a heart warming pre-game cuddle Weiss made the most of a rare starting spot, with his superb close ball control and burst of pace proving too much for Pompy’s shaky defence throughout the first half.

Unfortunately the performance which seemed almost too good to be true turned out to be just that, and despite a bright start to the second half Bolton were twice caught on the counter attack to bring Portsmouth level within 20minutes of the restart. The intensity was sucked out of the Bolton side well before Portsmouth’s equaliser, and although the Whites hit the post late on they rarely threatened to regain the lead. Whilst the second Portsmouth goal came through a series of individual errors, Gary Cahill at fault in particular, it was the first goal that should worry Coyle the most.

Muamba and Wilshere had shared the midfield responsibilities so well in the first half, but here they overcommitted to the attack, and when Wilshere was caught in possession on the edge of the Portsmouth box Bolton were instantly cut open. It is all too easy to put this type of mistake down to inexperience, yet this is precisely the type of risk that comes when playing without a genuine holding midfielder in the Barclays Premier League. The English top flight is characterised by the tempo in which its teams attack and Coyle must take this into account as he prepares for the 2010/11 season.
Whilst I am not a big advocate of playing the numbers game in modern football, Coyle lined up his side in what was a classic 4-4-2 formation. Weiss and Taylor played wide, Muamba and Wilshere shared the load in a high energy box to box midfield, with Klasnic and Davies the two forwards. With the full backs overlapping the result was an exciting and expansive brand of football, but too often it left Bolton wide open through the middle and a better side would have made much more of the space it allowed. Whilst Portsmouth were notably better after Avram Grant’s half time team talk the warning signs were already plain to see in the first period, and despite dominating the early proceedings Bolton were lucky to go into the break with a clean sheet. All afternoon Portsmouth were given too much space between midfield and defence, and nearly made it count just moments after Bolton’s second when John Utaka let loose from the edge of the area, denied only by the post.

I really don’t want to pour too much cold water on Coyle’s tactics; after all they are largely responsible for some of the best attacking football we have seen in many years at the Reebok. But whilst the Bolton fans enthusiastically got behind their side in a free flowing first half, the final whistle was once again drowned out with those all too familiar boos. Unfortunately without world class talent in all areas this type of football comes at a cost, and ultimately the fans will judge their side on results, not style. In the early stages the home side were hard to criticise, but in the inevitable lulls in intensity Bolton looked vulnerable. Unlike some previous performances today’s disappointing result cannot be blamed on the cobwebs left over from the Megson regime. Whilst it is not quite ‘back to the drawing board’, Coyle may have to sacrifice some of his footballing principles if he is serious about challenging the ‘big boys’ next season.

The final word today goes to Avram Grant, who was the last man on the field as he emerged from the dugout to applaud his small legion of travelling Portsmouth fans. With little to work with Grant has given Portsmouth fans something to smile about in these most depressing times, and he organised Portsmouth extremely well in the second period, suffocating Bolton’s attacking threats. What Grant lacks in charisma he more than makes up for in sincerity, exchanging a word and a hand shake with several Bolton fans before congratulating his brave players in the dressing room. The Portsmouth fans proudly cheered him off the pitch to the song that will define his legacy:

Que sera sera. Whatever will be, will be. We're going to Wembley. Que sera, sera

Rarely have the words been more fitting.

Richard Jackson (The Bolton Raider).

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Race for the top: Scholes and Bale blow the title race wide open

Just when we though it was all done and dusted the weekend's Premier League games throw the pundits yet another curve ball. With Man Utd less than a minute away from seemingly giving up on the title, veteran Paul Scholes muscled the ball past Shay Given to claim an injury time victory for his beloved Red Devils. The last gasp drama at the City of Manchester stadium not only gave Utd 3 vital points, it also gave them a huge psychological advantage as they yet again showed the 'never say die' attitude, that Ferguson's men are famed for.

Down in London the Chelsea players would have been glued to the TV watching the dying minutes and seeing Scholes wheel away in delight as the final whistle blow will have been a huge blow, even before they had kicked a single ball. To make matters worse there opponents down the corridor would be jumping for joy after the defeat for City opened the door for Tottenham to leapfrog them into fourth place. These mental gymnastics will go a long way to explaining the events at White Hart Lane. Spurs were irresistible, dominating the early stages with Gareth Bale continuing his mouth watering form with a fantastic goal. Chelsea on the other hand were flat and after captain John Terry received a justified red card in the 2nd half the defeat was set in stone. This was a great game of football with drama from start to finish but it was the result that provided the most drama of all; a 2-1 Spurs victory leaving them in 4th with just 4 games to play and Chelsea clinging to the top spot by the skin of their teeth.

With Saturday's action over, Arsenal prepared to play Wigan and what was earlier billed as a meaningless game for the Gunners had become an opportunity to get within 3 points of league leaders Chelsea. Although never convincing Arsenal strolled to a 2 goal lead, Theo Walcott providing the first as his pace and trickery proved to be too much for the Wigan defence. For much of the game an Arsenal victory seemed inevitable but a sensational late surge from the Latics supplied one of the most famous come backs in Premier League history. As the season high crowd roared there team on Wigan attacked with more emphasis. Charles N'Zgboia inspiring his team, drifting wide and driving through the middle as he pulled the strings in the final stages. Much like Scholes the previous day it was fitting that the man of match grabbed the winning goal, a thundering left footed shot from more than 20yards in the dying moments. It was no less than Wigan deserved as the Arsenal team so often criticised for its fragility crumbled. As Arsenal face the reality of a 5th consecutive year without a trophy Wigan all but guaranteed a 6th consecutive year of Premier League football and the nature of the victory, their first ever over Arsenal, will have made it all the more satisfying.

There are few certainties in the Premier League this season although there is one undeniable truth. Until that final whistle blows on this campaign nothing is certain and Chelsea and United look set to battle for this title until the very last kick. The last word goes to Wigan boss Roberto Martinez, who after his side's famous victory opened his press conference with a smile and a sigh. "That's why we're involved in football" he laughed. Sometimes these articles really do write themselves. 

Bolton Raider (Total Access Sports)

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Last gasp Scholes keeps United in the title race as the pressure shifts back to Chelsea

After his injury time winner, man of the match Paul Scholes was asked how much more it meant to get those vital points at the hands of his local rivals. His plain faced reaction said it all; despite all the hype this was just another three points to United. With Chelsea’s London derby against Tottenham still to come it is three vital points to keep the title race alive.

Neither side did enough to fully justify victory here today, but Scholes last minute winner was no fluke. There is a common misconception in football that last minute goals somehow produce unfair results, but it is so often in these final minutes that the great teams separate themselves from the rest. United continued their professional (if slightly underwhelming) performance until the final seconds and there was none more professional today than the goal scorer.

Scholes pulled the strings all day, spraying passes left and right to the wide men and breaking up the ball with his typically hard tackling all game long. It was fitting that Scholes both started and concluded United’s best move of the game, playing the ball wide to the Evra as he used all his experience to sneak into the box unmarked. His injury time header was one of huge determination, stretching back as he used every last once of energy to direct the ball past the helpless Shay Given. Given picked the ball out from the back of the net to the sight of thousands of City fans flooding the exits. It will be a bitter pill to swallow for Roberto Mancini after his keeper was little more than a spectator for the entire second half.

The Italian was visibly angry in his post match interview, rueing his sides missed chances after controlling much of the second half. City looked dangerous with Tevez driving through the middle as Bellamy and Johnson provided pace on the flanks. For all his flaws Adebayor was again vital for City, using his close control to start so many City attacks as he provided his side with a perfect target when they looked to go direct. Mancini’s millionaires came close on several occasions, not least on 87 minutes when Van Der Sar was left stranded as the ball bounced around the area. A vital block from Nedmanja Vidic saved his keepers blushes but City failed to produce any clear cut chances for their front men. If they are to really become a force in English football they must work on their productivity and predatory instinct in the most vital part of the pitch.

That said there were plenty of positives for the Sky Blues today. City were particularly effective down the left flank, as Bellamy and substitute Wright Philips rotated the duties and Bridge overlapped. Adam Johnson was also lively on the right, but was limited to rushed deliveries for most of the game. They also stifled the threat of Rooney, limiting him mainly to service with his back to goal. Despite playing so well however, City must reflect on the reality that they have lost three times to their local rivals this season and still have a long way to go if the balance of power is to shift to the blue city of the city.

The focus now shifts to the London derby as Tottenham host in form Chelsea and the last minute goal at the City of Manchester Stadium will have a huge effect on both sides this evening. United are now just one point behind the leaders and a victory for Tottenham would mean they would leapfrog City into 4th spot with just 4 games to play. The psychological effect of Scholes’ last minute winner is massive as the pressure is undeniably switched back to Chelsea, who must respond if they are to capitalise on their victory at Old Trafford earlier this month. Tottenham enter the derby full of confidence after a run of 6 wins in 7, including their midweek victory over Arsenal. Harry Redknapp would love nothing more than to have another say in this thrilling title race and City’s slip up means the door is open for his gifted Tottenham side to steal the coveted fourth spot in next season’s Champions League. After an unpredictable season marked by fallen champions and emerging powers you sense there’re more twists yet to come in what promises to be a nail biting finish.

Bolton Raider

Monday, 12 April 2010

Preview - Chelsea v Bolton: The omens look good for Chelsea, but the champions elect must be wary of travelling trotters

After their FA Cup Semi Final win on Saturday Carlo Ancelotti’s men have the league and cup double well in their sights. With games against Tottenham and Liverpool already highlighted as the key encounters in Chelsea’s title march one could forgive the Londoners from taking their midweek fixture against Bolton a little more lightly. Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 12 league games against Bolton (winning 9 and drawing 3) and the fact that Bolton have lost 4 of their last 5 league games without troubling the scorers is unlikely to cause too much concern for Terry and co. But football has never been a game to follow the script and with Bolton still fighting for vital survival points the blues might have to dig a little deeper than they would like if they are to come away with all three points.

The comments from Sir Alex Ferguson that Chelsea are in for an “easy” game adds another pinch of spice to the fixture; a classic piece of Fergie mind games in an attempt to raise the Wanderers from their recent slump in form. The Scotsmen’s comments provide the perfect ammunition for Coyle’s pre-match team talk who would love to have a say in a title race which is far from over.

Coyle is no stranger to giant killing, after opening his Premiership managerial career with a famous 1-0 victory over champions Man Utd whilst still at Burnley. And the Bolton boss was in a defiant mood today, stating: "Everyone has written us off but I've been in that position before and gone to Chelsea and won, as I did with Burnley in the cup. I can assure you it can be done."

At a similar stage in last season’s title race Bolton gave the blues a fright at the Bridge, coming back from 4-0 down as Chelsea hung on for a narrow 4-3 victory. If they are to go one better this time around Bolton must utilise the skills of Korean midfielder Chung-Yong Lee, who has been the white’s only real danger man since his move from FC Seoul in the summer. After an uncharacteristically unproductive game against Villa last Saturday he is due a big game. He will need no reminding that they don’t come much bigger than this.

In all probability however it will be another in form winger who will get most joy on Tuesday. After a terrific season Flourent Malouda may well be in line for Chelsea’s player of the year award. If Ancelotti have done his homework Chelsea will target Bolton fullbacks Robinson and Ricketts so don’t be surprised if the Frenchmen appears on both wings on Tuesday. Malouda’s pace, close control and fizzing crosses will present the Bolton defence with too much to handle unless distribution down the flanks is cut off, especially with Bolton old boy Nicolas Anelka likely to be given a more central role with top scorer Didier Drogba expected to be rested. Coyle must look to his youthful but gifted midfield trio of Muamba, Cohen and Wilshere to control possession as much as possible in the early stages if he wants to capitalise on the inevitable nerves in the Chelsea camp. If they can do so they will prevent Lampard from pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch and crucially if Bolton can get some genuine service to their own silky winger the Londerers may be in for more than they bargained for.

Bolton Raider - K3BQV3CBM546

Coyle’s Bolton Revolution shows promise, but no quick fix will fill the cracks of Megson’s regime

As the final whistle blew at the Reebok Stadium the groans from the home fans disappeared almost as quickly as they arrived. The feeling of disappointment is all too familiar here; who since the departure of Sam Allardyce in 2007 have seen a significant turn in fortune for the club. Today a lively but vulnerable Villa were barely made to sweat, needing to covert only 1 chance to take all three points as the Villains strolled to a comfortable victory.

“Typical Megson performance”, shouted one fan as he made his way out with only 5 minutes to go and sadly the problems that marred the Megson era have far from disappeared with the manager. The team still lacks a genuine goal threat and despite their best efforts Jack Wilshere and Tamir Cohen are too often passive and unproductive. But whilst the similarities with the Megson regime are all similar there is one crucial difference. Here the groans from the fans did not transcend into boos but applause. And not without good reason.

Despite a lacklustre performance Coyle’s men were only beaten by a wonderful solo effort from World Cup hopeful Ashley Young and whilst they rarely threatened Brad Friedel’s goal the introduction of Klasnic, Taylor and Vice gave new emphasis to the clearly jaded attack. It is this ‘Plan B’ mentally that was so often missing in the earlier part of the season and as Bolton looked to give the ball wide to their fresh legs the crowd got behind the team. The days of ‘Fortress Reebok’ may be gone, but the atmosphere is slowly creeping back into this once intimidating arena.

Coyle will keep Bolton in the top flight although he will do it his own way. So often at this stage in the season mangers sacrifice style for percentages; long balls, packed midfields, you know the script. Yet after taking over (with Bolton in the relegation zone) Coyle has tried to avoid this with his midfield players, Jack Wilshere in particular, often choosing to keep hold of the ball as they weaves away from tackles rather than simply punting the ball up to Davies. It may sound a risky strategy, but this more expansive brand of football has not only improved the team going forward, but has brought seven clean sheets since January; a substantial achievement with virtually the same squad which failed to force a shutout for the previous twenty two fixtures. It is not quite Barcelona, but it is marked improvement and the fans have started to respond.

Today was however a clear warning for the Bolton boss that it will take more than three months to resolve the problems that he was presented with in January. And it must start at the front. Whilst his effort cannot be questioned, Johan Elmander’s form has been woeful since his £11m transfer from Nantes. In two seasons in the Premiership he has managed only eight goals although it is not his lack of goals that will worry Coyle most but his lack in confidence. Elmander still plays with such fear and never looks comfortable on the ball. Often as the furthest man forward, picking up the ball in space Johan almost invariably looks to pass the ball off and never truly seems to break into a full sprint. He does a much better job of scaring himself than scaring defenders in these situations as the ball seems to have become a problem rather than the golden opportunity it is the many top flight strikers. The contrast between the intensity of Elmander and Agbonlahor as they looked to drive forward was quite incredible. If Coyle is to truly stamp his image on this team then he must surely move the Swede on in the summer as he looks to bring a goal threat with some real pace to the Reebok. Trotters fans should not expect the next Nicholas Anelka just yet, but a top striker must be top of Coyle’s wish list come Summer. The extent of the changes planned remains to be seen although it will take more than a few loan signings for this Bolton revolution to become a reality.