Can the Imps extend their unbeaten home league record on Friday night, asks Tom Morton?
It is a tough ask to overcome Bolton, who sit pretty firmly in the playoff spots at the season mid-point and have a 4-wins-in-5 record against us. That aside, I am pleased to finally have a home game after what feels like months. Technically I missed the Wycombe game through illness, but that aside it does feel like a lot has happened since our last game at the bank. Going into the Wycome game we were in an interesting position; unbeaten at home, trying to find our away form, and with a game in hand potential contenders for a mid-season playoff spot.
Roll forward a few weeks and the story feels somewhat different. Our away form is slipping, with only one win since the end of October, our performance on Boxing day was simply dire, and our game in hand now looks more important in terms of securing us in the top half of the table. In short, we need to turn in a top performance on Friday to beat a top team.
Fortunately, it’s something we’ve done before and possibly even more fortunately it looks like Bolton’s away form will work in our favour.
The Trotters last played away from home on December 10th and lost 3-2 to Shrewsbury a team in a similar position to ourselves. Statistically, things also look good. Bolton’s xG away from home is 1.36 but they’ve only managed an average of 1. By comparison, our xG at home is 0.98 but we are over-performing with 1.1 goals scored, plus our home defence is excellent with us conceding just 0.9 per match (to Bolton average of 1.1 conceded goals away from home). Technically that should translate to a positive scoreline. The risk, of course, is another draw. We have a lot of 1-1 home draws this season, showing we can get a goal but struggle to take the game away from the visiting team.
In the reverse fixture, back at the start of October, we did lose 2-0. But I think that scoreline doesn’t show to reality of a game where we gifted them a first-half lead and a second-half finisher. In fact I think we competed well for most of the match and for significant portions controlled the game, against a club with a much bigger player budget than ours. This bodes well; I think our style plays better against the stronger teams who want to play football (as it has done for a few seasons).
By the way, apparently Bolton are using Coldplay songs to “fire them up” before games, which honestly makes no sense to me but there you go.
Bolton appear to be struggling with various injuries, including some key players, which may continue to impact them come Friday. At the back they have been missing both captain Ricardo Santos and vice-captain Gethin Jones. Santos is recovering from pneumonia so is unlikely to be fully fit for Friday, but we may see Jones return from injury. Either way, expect to see Eoin Toal playing in their back three. Although the Northern Ireland international has impressed fans over the past few weeks it’s definitely a loose thread to pull. Couple that with their very youthful goalkeeper (James Trafford, on loan from Man City) and there is definitely scope to unpick their defence. In recent highlights, you can see Trafford can struggle to dominate his box, and playing out from the back under pressure they can come unstuck.
Bolton’s leading man is Dion Charles. He joined the Trotters from Accrington in the last January transfer window and can be a prolific goal scorer. Admittedly, the last couple of seasons have been on the lighter side, but in the 20/21 season he scored 19 for Accrington. Charles is a very skilled forward and loves to be in the box to latch onto balls – yes he is not quite firing on all cylinders right now but that doesn’t make him any less of a threat in the moment.
Going forward, Bolton like a quick attack down the wings. Watch out for the runs to the byline and cut-back crosses to the edge of the box. They love a chest-height ball into the centre of the box for someone to put a diving header on, and they are pretty good at working the defence. It will be critical for us to keep an eye on Charles as he can quickly get away from his man and create trouble, but also watch out for Connor Bradley. The youngster is on loan from Liverpool and on top of four goals already this season is a real threat running at the opposition.
Head to Head
We have very little history with Bolton, given they’ve spent a lot of time in the top-flight over the last few decards. In the early part of the 20th Century we faced off for a number of seasons in then Division Two, and through the 1980s they joined us in the fourth tier for a bit.
In the modern era, Bolton have suffered from various financial woes which has seen them slip down from a decade of premiership football into the lower tiers. The Trotters visited Sincil Bank in the curtailed 19/20 season (we missed the reciprocal game at Bolton) where we proceeded to dismantle them 5-1. Suffice to say they were relegated to League two that year. They bounced back in one season, and over the previous couple of years our record hasn’t been good – three losses in three games.
A few weeks ago, things seemed very positive. An outside shout at competing for a mid-season playoff spot and a potentially winnable away tie at Southampton. Roll forward and we rightly feel aggrieved to have that cup win (and a tasty away fixture/6-figure payday at Man City) taken away from us and having seen a turgid post-Xmas performance. Let’s not be negative, this isn’t last season, but it is a disappointing low.
So there is a sense this is quite a key game; we could lose on Friday and suddenly be facing a few tough games to keep away from the drop zone. Equally, a win might be a jumping off point for the second half of the season. And of course we have to face the fact that after Boxing Day something needs to invigorate the players and drive us forward. Whether that is a good outing against Bolton, or inbound players in the transfer window, is yet to be seen.
(p.s. don’t forget we’ll be in our away kit for the match – which will be an experience – as part of the #nohomekit campaign, an excellent idea to highlight the impact of homelessness)