Usually at this point in the season we know what we are getting from each club. The manager, the style, the squad, the strengths, the weaknesses, all of this should be well-known by April 28th. This is not the case with these two clubs, for a variety of reasons.
It's pretty easy to understand for Sunderland, as they hired a new manager midway through the season. They currently sit 11th in the table, on 44 points. Bolton, on the other hand, have just been fantastically inconsistent. The players are not entirely to blame for this, it has come from the top. Owen Coyle's tactics, personnel, and formation have all changed several times in the past nine months. As a result, Wanderers are 18th in the table, with 33 points from 34 matches.
So what will we see this Saturday at the Stadium of Light? Roker Report (SB Nation's Sunderland blog) spoke with us yesterday, and they said to expect a very tight, very organized Sunderland team. OK, they now have Martin O'Neill at the helm, so that is no surprise. But what can we expect from Bolton Wanderers?
They are some predictable things about this painfully unpredictable squad. The defenders, while competent individually, struggle to work together, which means one or more of them can be caught out of position. In other words, Sunderland will have some chances. Especially dangerous will be midfielder/striker Stephane Sessegnon. He is Sunderland's most skilled attacker, and O'Neill has basically given him the freedom of the pitch. With the likes of Lee Cattermole behind him, the man from Benin has been absolved of defensive responsibility.
Our friends from Roker Report wrote that Sessegnon likes to operate in the space between the back line and the midfield. Bolton tends to leave loads of space here, so it could be a long afternoon for the Trotters if someone doesn't take personal responsibility for him. As he has been for most of this season, the most likely candidate for that job is Nigel Reo-Coker. Since Fabrice Mumba has been unavailable, most of the defensive responsibility has fallen to Reo-Coker and Mark Davies. There have been some rough moments, in fact, a lot of rough moments. One thing is for sure; there won't be a clean sheet. A 0-0 draw is an unlikely result here. There will be goals.
Another predictable thing for Bolton this season; there will be fitness questions. I don't want to harp on it, but Wanderers have been tremendously unfortunate on the injury front this season. This weekend will be no different. Chris Eagles has filled in as a central midfielder the past couple matches, and actually done a fine job of it. But we may need him on the wing this week, as Ryo Miyaichi is suffering from a shoulder injury. We actually ended last week's match with Marcos Alonso playing on the wing (and looking pretty good doing it if we are honest).
In fact, when Owen Coyle announces his team Saturday afternoon, a few supporters might be angry, but most of us will probably be confused. That is the final predictable thing about our club at this moment. It will be a good ten minutes into the match before anyone (including the players I suspect) actually knows what formation Coyle has us playing, and who is where in that formation.
Now let's take a look at the relegation battle. Bolton do have some important opportunities this weekend. If they win, Bolton definitely move out of the relegation zone, because several other clubs do not play until Sunday. In fact, with three points and a West Bromwich Albion win, Bolton can move level on points with Aston Villa, who sit 15th in the table.
Wigan Athletic play Newcastle, who are white hot at the moment. Despite Wigan's annual late season charge (14 points from their last 18 on offer), it's hard to see them getting anything more than a point.
Queens Park Rangers visit Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea may still be drunk from their shocking Champion's League result this week. Much as I like to hope that our friend Daniel Sturridge will do us a favor, the Blues are unlikely to care about this match. QPR should get at least a point, probably all three.
Tottenham Hotspur host Blackburn Rovers. Each has only one win in their last six matches. Spurs, much like Liverpool, seem to be actively conspiring to send Bolton down. This is a nailed on win for the Lancashire side.