BOLTON WANDERERS 0
Bolton had already been beaten by four clear goals by Chelsea twice this season, so the meeting between the two sides on Wednesday was a useful guage of whether significant improvements had been made since the appointment of Owen Coyle as manager in January.
It would be difficult to read much into a stubborn rearguard action, other than the obvious implication that a side has organisation and a collective spirit. So it is fortunate that Bolton came to Stamford Bridge with a dual-faceted game plan. Yes, defend in numbers and do it well when the situation arises. When you get the chance to play, ask questions of the opposition defence, be a threat, be positive. Do not show too much respect. With Chelsea performing slightly within themselves (though some credit goes to Bolton for this), a spectacle emerged that was more fascinating than the ‘easy game’ predicted by Sir Alex Ferguson and others beforehand. The style of the side Coyle has inherited could not be further from the ideals which the Scottish-born former Republic of Ireland striker holds with regard to how the game should be played. It is evident that he has sought to change things slightly, with more football being played in the right areas. However, a side with Kevin Davies as its spearhead is always going to have a threat from high balls into the penalty area, set pieces and long throws. With Sam Ricketts able to deliver Delap- like missiles from the touchline and a prodigious aerial menace there to pounce, sacrificing the direct route altogether would be akin to Coyle cutting his nose off. After all, with a relegation battle still not won, results will be the determining factor over whether or not he made a wise move leaving Burnley in January.
It is just as well that some of the ‘old Bolton’ has remained. The major criticism of their performance against Chelsea was their lack of purpose on occasions when they managed to get the ball down and play. Their best opportunities arose from deliveries into the penalty area, with Johan Elmander spurning a headed chance a £10 million striker should bury. When some neat play fashioned an opening, lone striker Kevin Davies was at the heart of it. Twice he linked up with Matt Taylor who had an empty penalty area to aim at as a result. One area where Bolton have improved is in defence. They chose the right times to close down and the also those occasions where retention of shape was paramount. After half an hour, this writer noted the impatience of a crowd that had come expecting a massacre. Indeed, they will be disappointed that Nicolas Anelka rose unchallenged to head in just before half-time. It nullified the effect of the job they had done so well and deprived them of a 0-0 score at the interval that could have been critical in the psychology of the rest of the game.
Ultimately, the narrow victory for the Blues was just about deserved and Bolton can not really consider themselves hard done by, though two penalty shouts against Didier Drogba and John Terry may have been given at the other end. They showed spirit in abundance, but it would be patronising to focus on this too much. Coyle has got them organised and working for each other. Every player knows their job, and the threat beyond the route pursued by Allardyce and Megson is being developed. Moreover, given a full pre-season to work with, he may have the Trotters playing in a way that gets the best out of Elmander, whose talent is undeniable but has been shown only in flashes. It is impossible to think there are not three worse teams in the Premier League than the side that ran Chelsea so close on Wednesday.