It could be said that Aston Villa need only take a point tonight against Bolton Wanderers in the re-arranged fixture at Villa Park to stave off growing relegation concerns.
Alex McLeish’s side have not been short of producing league draws this campaign (15 in total) but it’s only four wins at home which has contributed most to their low league position (15th).
Villa fans aren’t used to spending time in the bottom half of the table, let alone finishing outside the top ten, so whatever the outcome from the remaining games, McLeish’s first season can already be labelled ‘unsuccessful’.
McLeish and Birmingham City were relegated with a total of three points more than Villa have currently with three games remaining after tonight, although in some past campaigns a total of 36 points has been enough to stay up. In each of Birmingham’s two recent relegation campaigns they earned 26 points at St Andrews – that’s two more than Villa’s maximum possible return from their home games this season, with a visit from Tottenham remaining on the penultimate weekend.
Bolton go there in even more desperate need of points it might be argued, and that is only likely to make the task more difficult for the home side.
QPR and Wigan (both on 34 points from 35 games) would have Bolton breathing down their necks in the table if Owen Coyle’s team were to come out as winners tonight. They currently sit three points adrift but this is the first of two games in hand.
Following their 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United on Easter Monday, Coyle said: “We will have to pick ourselves up and go again. We know we have got enough quality to stay in the league.” They went to Dubai for some warm weather training before returning to action at the Reebok last Saturday for a 1-1 draw and a point against Swansea City.
But enough about Bolton who I think can prevent Villa from recording only their fifth home win in the league this season. Just six games ago after Villa’s most recent league win, on March 10th, they were 11 points above the relegation places and ten points better off than Bolton. Now there’s only a five point gap between themselves and 18th place Blackburn, with the gap down to Bolton reduced to just six points despite having played a game more.
Bolton Wanderers started the Easter weekend in the strongest position of the bottom five clubs in the Premier League. A point better off and home advantage against a mid-table Fulham side on Saturday, while their rivals all played away. But the outcome at the Reebok Stadium went badly against the home side who had strung together three wins in a row including two home wins prior to the Cottagers’ visit.
In some ways Owen Coyle’s side were fortunate given that the other three relegation contenders that played yesterday also all lost, while QPR take on Manchester United at Old Trafford today, but the fixture calendar throws Bolton back into action tomorrow, while the others have longer to prepare for home games in midweek. They must go to Newcastle United who have an eye back on qualifying for Europe next season after four consecutive wins, and a pair of clean sheets last week. Bolton can’t fancy their chances much especially given the goalscoring form Magpies’ Papiss Cisse is currently in.
After the 3-0 defeat Coyle said, “My disappointment is the goals we have conceded. The free-kick is something we don’t have to give away, and then the second right on half-time we have given away with a poor pass and Damien Duff sets up a great ball and we want defenders or midfielders to sense danger but Dempsey is allowed to run unmarked with a free header.
“Second half we changed it, we scrapped around at 2-0 without creating anything gilt-edged and we needed the next goal but then we give away another poor goal on the counter.
“But I feel that the first goal is always vital and that turned the game on its head today.”
Bolton Wanderers may have been fortuitous in the first of three consecutive league wins, after the officials at the Reebok Stadium had failed to spot a goal while 0-0 scored by QPR, but there was nothing lucky about them beating an in-form Blackburn Rovers 2-1 two weeks later.
Manager Owen Coyle paid tribute to the performance by his players just seven days after Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest. He said, “The spirit and quality we showed was fantastic. It was difficult when Blackburn pulled it back to 2-1, given what has happened over the last week and the mental fatigue that can cause, but every single player stood strong.”
Three further points at bottom-of-the-table Wolves last weekend marked Bolton’s best run of form in the league since December 2006. Now they are a point better off than QPR, Blackburn and Wigan Athletic and with a game in hand. They’re not out of trouble yet but avoiding defeat at home to Fulham this weekend will further help their cause, and potentially leave that trio of clubs immediately below them fighting for the one remaining place in the top flight for next season.
Tim Ream signed from New York Red Bulls as Chelsea bound Gary Cahill’s replacement along with loan acquisition Ryo Miyaichi from Arsenal this winter. Both players have helped improve Bolton’s fortunes with the exception of a home defeat (their ninth and fortunately for them their most recent this season) to Wigan in February. Coyle immediately introduced Ream to the side after that game.
Meanwhile, Martin Jol’s Cottagers ended their run of three consecutive defeats last weekend with victory at home to Norwich despite losing their January signing Pavel Pogrebnyak to an early injury. That led to a debut for former Liverpool youth team player Alex Kacaniklic who had spent the first three months of the year on loan at Watford in the Championship.
Bolton Wanderers’ 2-1 win at neighbours Blackburn Rovers in December meant that Blackburn rather than Bolton were bottom of the Premier League table on Christmas Day after 17 games.
In Rovers’ 12 games since, they have taken almost two thirds of their total points this season. Bolton have taken less than half of their own points total in their 11 games since victory at Ewood Park.
As we know form goes out of the window in derby matches, but Steve Kean will be hoping this afternoon that it means his side improves in terms of winning away from home. The crucial 2-0 win at Wolves thanks to a double by Junior Hoilett a fortnight ago was their first three points on the road since they surprised Manchester United on New Years’ Eve.
Owen Coyle’s Bolton needed to take the lead twice, including an 86th minute winner scored by Ivan Klasnic, just six minutes after he’d come on as a substitute, to beat QPR in their last home game.