Weakened team expected against Sunderland
5 January ~ Things haven't been going to plan at the Reebok Stadium. With the majority of last season's squad retained after relegation from the Premier League, many expected Bolton to push for an immediate return. By New Year those expectations had long since been revised. With the worst away record in the division and without back-to-back wins since March, even the wildly optimistic concede that a late run for the play-offs looks unlikely.
Despite a promising start following his move from Crystal Palace at the end of October, manager Dougie Freedman has struggled to bring consistency to a squad he quickly identified as "a little imbalanced". It isn't difficult to see what he means; with Matt Mills injured until February and Stephen Warnock's loan from Aston Villa expired, Wanderers' defence all but picks itself. Meanwhile, lightweight midfielders and forwards so far incapable of ousting the ageing Kevin Davies are ten a penny.
Freedman has inherited a side capable of occasional brilliance but lacking the physicality or resilience to compete when Championship push comes to shove. In case he was under any illusions, the task ahead was eloquently illustrated by a ludicrous 5-4 defeat at bottom club Peterborough before Christmas.
Premier League Sunderland travel to the Reebok today with their own concerns having failed to build on Martin O'Neill's impressive start to life in the north-east. With O'Neill likely to prioritise league over Cup until his side's position is more secure, Bolton will be hoping Black Cats' chief goal-threat Steven Fletcher is among those given the afternoon off.
The magic of the Cup will be largely lost on the home side, with Bolton fans conspicuous by their absence as Freedman rings the changes. Young right-back Joe Riley and former Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan are likely to be two and there may even be a rare sighting of Marvin Sordell, whose appearances have been largely limited to social media since Owen Coyle paid Watford £3 million for his "services" 12 months ago. However, with rumours of homesickness, attitude problems and Barnsley striker Craig Davies all rife, Sordell's Bolton career may not stretch too far beyond this weekend. Unless things take an unexpected turn for the better quickly, Bolton's season might not either. Jon Calow