Despite doing their level best to throw it away, Wanderers came away from their most important game of the season with 3 crucial points that leave them 4 points clear of the Championship trap door. Zach Clough’s first goal back at the club (allegedly) was enough to defeat Sunderland though the visitors did have numerous chances to take something from the game. While the victory was fantastic the way it was achieved was questionable.
Phil Parkinson drew the ire of Bolton fans once again with his team selection, electing to start veteran Aaron Wilbraham up front whilst also bringing in Clough, Dorian Dervite, Andy Taylor, Filipe Morais and Jem Karacan for his first start since a September loss to Aston Villa. It was a strange team that looked very attack-minded with 3 up front and Karacan, an undoubtedly attack-minded midfielder, alongside Karl Henry in a holding role, though I refused to throw my toys out of the pram until seeing what the team had to offer.
As it happened, they started the game pretty poorly and were fortunate that Sunderland did the same. There were no chances to speak of before the 17th minute and Wilbraham not only looked useless but encouraged the centre-halves to hoof the ball to him, thus making us predictable and ineffective. We did, however, open the scoring when Taylor was fouled on the left and Morais stepped up to whip in a stunning delivery that somehow eluded goalkeeper, Lee Camp, and ended up in the net. Both Clough and Wilbraham took the plaudits, but the goal was awarded to the Denton Destroyer. I have watched it back several times and I have no idea who scored it. In games like these, who cares!
In typical Parkinson-era Bolton fashion the Whites decided that would be enough and spent the remainder of the half soaking up Sunderland pressure. I have always had a soft spot for the Black Cats but they looked very poor, struggling to carve out many clear-cut opportunities despite seeing the vast majority of the ball. One did fall the way of former Bolton academy product, Ashley Fletcher, whose family still support the club. Fletcher found himself one-on-one with Ben Alnwick but the former Sunderland stopper did just enough to force his shot wide. While it was a good save, the strike reeked of a lack of confidence and with him leading their line you have to fear for the Mackems.
The second-half brought more Sunderland pressure with little incident and Chris Coleman threw on Aiden McGeady midway through the half to try and add some magic to proceedings. Around the same time, Wilbraham was withdrawn to cheers from the home faithful and Adam Le Fondre replaced him, making the Whites infinitely more dangerous in the process. Goalscorer Clough was also replaced by Derik in an attempt to strengthen the midfield. Whether the change had that effect is up for debate but what did happen was that the already impressive Karacan was moved further forward; the Turk never looked back.
The game itself had become a non-event but Karacan’s performance was exemplary as he dashed around tackling anything that moved whilst also adding calmness and precison to Wanderers’ passing. We might be limited by our previous style and the old habits it has left behind but when we play without a big man up top we are more dangerous and infinitely more watchable. It was on the 80th minute that this change bore fruit.
Morais switched to the left wing and whipped in a beautiful cross for Le Fondre. The former Reading man lost his marker and headed into the corner, only to see his effort clawed away by Camp. Within seconds Alfie pounced on the rebound, turning the ball into Karacan for what would have been a deserved goal, but the midfielder’s effort crashed into the bar. Seconds later Karacan headed another Morais cross towards goal, only to see it drift narrowly past the post. It was great entertainment but, like all Bolton fans, one knew it meant that the opposition were still in it. If you don’t take your chances in football often you are punished. Bolton almost were.
Callum McManaman was thrown on by Coleman and he had an immediate impact, crossing for Fletcher to head wide after seeing his own shot blocked. This prompted Parky to take off Karacan for Reece Burke, parking the proverbial bus, but even this couldn’t prevent Sunderland having one more golden chance to take a share of the spoils. An out of sorts David Wheater scuffed a clearance into the path of McGeady who crossed for McManaman to shoot. The former Wigan and West Brom man got all his power behind it but Alnwick managed to tip it over the bar, securing the points for Wanderers.
It wasn’t a great performance all-round but within it there were really positive showings from the likes of Alnwick, Karacan and Sammy Ameobi. Sunderland, for me, look dead and buried but we cannot rest on our laurels after this win. We are in the fortunate position where we play all the teams around us before the final count and to survive we cannot lose any of them. If we win against Barnsley, Birmingham and Burton I think that will be enough to stay up, but in order to do that we have to play better than this.