Barnsley, Oxford and Peterborough will still have this Bolton concern: View | OneFootball

Barnsley, Oxford and Peterborough will still have this Bolton concern: View | OneFootball

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Football League World

·19 April 2024

Barnsley, Oxford and Peterborough will still have this Bolton concern: View

Article image:Barnsley, Oxford and Peterborough will still have this Bolton concern: View

Bolton Wanderers have stumbled into a bit of form just at the right time as they prepare for the League One play-offs.

The Trotters enjoyed good wins against Reading and Bristol Rovers before being much the better side, as John Mousinho admitted, in a 1-1 draw with now-champions Portsmouth last weekend.

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A frustrating 2-2 draw at home to Shrewsbury Town in which several key players were missing for the Whites has slightly undermined that run but focus can now be entirely clear on a play-off challenge, rather than pushing Derby County all the way in the automatic promotion race and that will be a concern for the other members of the top six.

Focusing on the play-offs

In the aftermath of that aforementioned point against Shrewsbury, Ian Evatt said hopes of automatic promotion were "gone" less than 24 hours after definitively declaring the race would go to the final day of the season and despite the fact that a Bolton win at home to relegation-bound Port Vale on Saturday combined with a Derby loss at battling Cambridge United could see Wanderers leapfrog the Rams on goal difference with a game to go.

Bolton supporters, and neutral fans, are now used to Evatt’s press conference antics – though whether it is speaking before thinking or something much more cunning is up for debate.

Either way, Wanderers fans and potentially their players have been given clarity by those post-match comments with everything that this season has given and potentially the entire Evatt-era itself being defined by the next month with a focus on the play-offs.

They limped over the line last season and were comfortably beaten, albeit only by two goals to one on aggregate, by Barnsley in the semi-finals.

This time around, though, with Bolton comfortably assured of a spot with weeks in the season to go and assured of playing the second leg at the Toughsheet Community Stadium, where they have the second-best home record in League One, they will have a lot more belief of progressing through to Wembley Stadium.

Concerns for the rest

There were mitigating factors in Tuesday night’s clash with Shrewsbury with missed chances, something that has dogged the team throughout the campaign, exacerbating an already below-par performance.

There will now, though, be an understanding, if one was needed, of exactly how important the likes of Ricardo Santos and Josh Sheehan, who both missed the game with niggles, are to Wanderers’ spine. Gethin Jones was also unavailable, whilst Northern Ireland international Dion Charles could only be a second-half substitute as he gets eased back from injury.

Dan Nlundulu also returned for Wanderers and there will be a belief that these players are enough to see Bolton over the line in at least the semi-final but most likely a final, too, if they can click and hit their peak performance.

Wanderers’ best form this season came in the autumn when they hit the top of the table in late November after a 7-0 demolition of Exeter City.

If performance levels can return to close to that level then the likes of Peterborough United, Barnsley, and Oxford United will sincerely fear the Whites.

There is reason to think Bolton, as Evatt perennially says, ‘on their day’ can blow away any of those three teams in a one-off encounter – as they have shown with a 3-0 win at Oakwell last season, a 5-0 win at London Road last season too, as well as a 5-0 hammering of Oxford just last month.

Another major boost for the Trotters is the excellent performances and form of January signing Aaron Collins with last season’s League One Player of the Year already notching eight times with two assists since joining on the final day of the transfer window for a fee of around £750,000 from Bristol Rovers.

Their recent form – in particular, the victories against Reading and Bristol Rovers, as well as the draw with Pompey – suggests they may well head into the play-offs with plenty of momentum.

Indeed, even after their 2-2 with the Shrews in midweek, the other top six sides will be concerned about the prospect of Bolton, a team that are likely to end the season within three points of automatic promotion, heading into the play-offs with a head of steam.

Positives for the rest

Whilst all three of those sides will be equally concerned and impressed about Bolton’s ‘best’, there will also be an understanding that they can tactically and mentally stifle the Lancastrians.

Shrewsbury Town boss Paul Hurst discussed how they had studied the games in which Bolton struggled this season and a theme was a three-at-the-back system, limiting space and time for the Whites to play in the final third.

That may well benefit Barnsley in a repeat of last season’s play-off semi-final with the Tykes, who play that system and have avoided defeat both home and away against Wanderers this term.

Peterborough and Oxford, on the other hand, play a proactive and progressive possession-based back four system.

Another reason for positivity and optimism for Bolton’s rivals would be the Trotters’ record against top six teams in the last two seasons. In 21 matches, including those play-off games against Barnsley, they have managed just five victories.

The truth is, though, that, as they have shown against all three of the likely play-off finishers in recent times, Bolton’s very best should be better than all of them.

As they begin to hit some sort of stride with returning players, most notably Nathan Baxter and Dion Charles, as well as in-form key men like Ricardo Santos, Paris Maghoma, and Aaron Collins; Bolton should be the team to beat and feared most in League One’s denouement.

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