This match-up has featured some great moments in the past, but this week Aston Villa and Bolton are both coming off of hammerings by title contenders. But there was a very different level of quality to the performance in these defeats. Bolton played Manchester United pretty tight last weekend, with a ridiculous own goal the only thing preventing the game being level at halftime. Villa, on the other hand, were absolutely shellacked by Chelsea. There are varying opinions on what effect those results will have on tomorrow's match.
Martin O'Neill has been saying for weeks that his players are tired, and they looked it against Chelsea. Fact is, the manager has only himself to blame. The squad he has built at Villa actually has a reasonable amount of depth, but O'Neill refuses to rotate his players, and this has cost him not only this season, but the past few seasons, as Villa have made great starts but faded late. His most significant injury worries are Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner, Richard Dunne, Emile Heskey, and John Carew. I think most of them will end up featuring, either on the bench or from the start. To me, Milner has been outstanding this season, and it will be a big blow if he can't play all 90 minutes.
Owen Coyle has been much more willing to rotate his squad, as he has named 18 different players in the starting XI since his arrival in late January. At this point though, with 6 games left in the season, we have a pretty good idea who he will start with. The goalkeeper is obvious, and has been for 12 seasons now. Zat Knight and Gary Cahill will start in the centre of defense, hopefully for year to come. Fabrice Mumba will sit in front of them, again, hopefully for years to come. Jack Wilshere and Lee Chung-Yong will play on either wing, and Kevin Davies will spearhead the attack along with Johan Elmander.
That leaves 3 positions of interest. It has been hard to get a read of Coyle's opinion regarding the fullbacks, because injuries and suspensions over the past 2 months have meant that Sam Ricketts, Gretar Steinsson, and Paul Robinson have all played together more often than not. Now that the back-line is healthy again, we will see who Coyle trusts for the run-in.
The other opening, an done that has caused a great deal of debate amongst Bolton supporters, is the second, more attacking, central midfield role.
Tamir Cohen has been the default choice, starting 25 matches this season. I think Cohen is a good player. He will not be nutmegging defenders and chipping the keeper after a mazy run, but he is a decent passer, a good defender, and has popped up with the occasional goal, although not recently.
A lot of supporters prefer Mark Davies, and he is quite a promising youngster. He played an absolute blinder against Arsenal in January, but Williams Gallas butchered his leg late in that match, and although Davies has featured a few times since then, the ankle has obviously bothered him and he prevented his reaching the same heights.
Ricardo Gardner has been very good in several central midfield appearances, but at this point in his career he is always injured. He has recently returned to training after a thigh problem, but I doubt he will feature in this one.
There are a couple other options, such as dropping Elmander into this role and starting Ivan Klasnic up front, or playing Riga Mustapha as the attacker in a midfield diamond, but those are unlikely. Some would like to see Wilshere moved into the middle and Vladimir Weiss given a chance from the start, but Coyle doesn't seem interested in giving Weiss that opportunity.
A draw would bring Bolton 6 points clear of the drop zone, while a win would push their cushion to 8 points with 5 matches to play. As for the clubs around them, Wolves are at Arsenal, where they will get nothing, and Wigan are at Fulham, where they can expect a point at best. West Ham are at Goodison Park, where they will lose, and Hull City are at Stoke, where a draw would be a good result for them, but is unlikely. Burnley host Manchester City, but I think they are just about relegated, and Portsmouth are already down.