Despite fears to the contrary, David Wagner selected a relatively strong squad for a competition which has, arguably, even less importance to Town than in recent years. He was helped by the return from injury of Billing (on the bench) and Hefele and the opportunity to give Kongolo a debut, but only 4 or 5 regulars were rested.
Bolton Wanderers’ fall from grace over the past few years culminating in huge financial problems and a brief spell in the third tier allows Phil Parkinson a much reduced ability to successfully rotate but good recent form after a horrendous start to their return to the Championship gives them a realistic chance of survival which has to be the priority.
An achingly dull first half saw early Bolton flurries fade very quickly as Town seized control of possession with the home side sitting back rather than pressing.
The possession was almost entirely pointless, other than starving Bolton of opportunity, with few balls played between the lines and far too many launched in to touch while trying to find width.
Retention and recycling of possession is a hallmark of Wagner’s tactics but it can induce a lack of imagination, bravery and penetration. An already sterile atmosphere – not unsurprisingly, the Bolton public were not seduced by Town’s new and unusual status – was further depressed by the visitor’s inability to progress much beyond sideways passing, safe balls backward and fear of risk.
Depoitre, who had a good first half but a quieter second, managed to bully his marker on one occasion but couldn’t find a team mate with a cutback while a couple of speculative shots were the meagre return on the possession investment.
Other than Depoitre’s presence, the only bright spot for Town was Sabiri. The forgotten number 10, who Wagner rates as a poor trainer, is surprisingly good in the air, has a good touch and that hint of maverick which may be the missing ingredient in a side which creates far too little.
Having dominated a game that barely reached the giddy heights of banal, Town should have been undone shortly before the break when Wilbraham, all alone, met a good cross only to see his attempt skew so wide of the target you would be forgiven for thinking his head was threepenny bit shaped.
The missing Madine would have buried it.
It would have served the visitors right had Wilbraham scored. The lack of adventure, which should flow from long spells with the ball, may be excused by the lack of familiarity in a team including a new signing – who played very well himself – and various fringe players, but the spectacle was pretty dreadful.
After the break, Town improved and added some much needed pace and movement to their play which, surprise, surprise, created momentum, pressure and a goal.
First, Sabiri had a good effort from range saved, resulting in a couple of corners, Depoitre and Lolley saw further attempts blocked and more corners were won with the final one finding its way to Van La Parra who flicked in the opener from short range.
Within a minute, Town were two up. A run by Sabiri was halted illegally and he stumbled in to a challenge with Wheater – an event ludicrously blown up by Parkinson post match – and the ball fell kindly to Williams. Advancing with menace, the German American’s shot was wildly deflected past Howard.
Upping the pace and applying sustained pressure won the tie. To their credit, Bolton didn’t crumble and began to cause problems, particularly down the right where Ameobi caused Malone significant problems. Parkinson’s decision to withdraw him later seemed a little odd.
Just after the hour, the home side were rewarded when Town didn’t get away a second time with an unmarked player arriving at the back post to meet a deep corner, and Derik ensured that the Premier League side wouldn’t have a comfortable ride in to the 4th round.
The Trotters created several mild alarms as they pushed for an equaliser but didn’t really test Coleman and Town’s opportunities to break began to open up. Immediately after the home goal, Williams had an excellent long range effort saved but most of the effort reverted to dominating possession again and for a while the horrors of the first half were revisited.
Town should have wrapped the game up in the final ten minutes. A midfield mix up allowed Sabiri to be freed in to the box and he looked to be fouled as he shot. The ball squirted out to Williams whose shot was saved at the near post.
Predictably, the Terriers had to deal with aerial assaults as time began to run out for the hosts which they achieved reasonably comfortably. As the minutes ticked by, more and more control was established and the rather skimpy 4 minutes of added time – Coleman was booked for persistent time wasting which, as ever, wasted even more time – were seen out professionally.
The second half had been more entertaining – which wasn’t much of an achievement – and, overall, Town deserved the win.
On the plus side, Sabiri showed he can add an extra dimension to the team and it is to be hoped he makes the match day squad more regularly, new signing Kongolo played well and looks a good addition, Hefele’s return was a success and the ignominy visited upon one or two other Premier League sides was avoided.
Quaner’s apparently minor injury aside, the players came through unscathed and a tricky assignment was negotiated.