By Chris Harris
Not long ago Arsenal v Bolton looked for all the world like a competitive yet academic end-of-season-fixture. Not any more. Arsenal, for so long seemingly entrenched in the Premiership's top four, are just two points ahead of their next opponents in the race for a Champions League place.
A game in hand gives the Gunners slightly more breathing space but defeat at Emirates Stadium on Saturday would set alarm bells ringing. And as everyone knows, Bolton are more than capable of making life difficult for Arsène Wenger's side. After a poor run of results at the start of the year, Sam Allardyce's team have found their form in the nick of time.
We asked Gordon Sharrock of the Bolton Evening News for a Bolton perspective ahead of this weekend's big game. Read on to find out who has made Wanderers tick this season, why Allardyce has more in common with Wenger than most people realise, and why he never tires of watching Arsenal in action.
THE STORY SO FAR
"You just have to look at the table to see that it has been a successful season. Bolton are fifth going into this game and that in itself speaks volumes. At the turn of the year we sensed that this could be a side with genuine Champions League potential. A lot of people were grudgingly making that point but inside the club the belief had been there for a while. Bolton were in the top four on merit. Unfortunately they have a habit of following a fantastic run with an equally dramatic slump. They took eight points from a possible 27 at the start of the year and found themselves going into the game against Sheffield United two weeks ago under so much pressure just to stay in with a chance of a European place. Then Bolton got a good result against Sheffield United, with an improved performance, they won at Wigan, who have been a bogey side for them, and drew with Everton. That's seven points from nine and suddenly, with Arsenal having problems, they are only two points off the Champions League places. It looks as if they have found their form at the right time but there is still work to do to get into the Uefa Cup."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"There are a few contenders for Bolton's player of the season award. El-Hadji Diouf, the player all opposing fans love to hate, has had a super season. He hasn't been scoring many goals but he always gives you a high-tempo, menacing performances, and his assists record is impressive. Kevin Davies is another important players. He was missing for half-a-dozen games after cracking a bone in his foot in the FA Cup tie at Emirates Stadium. They were games Bolton needed him in because he makes them stronger, he is central to everything they do and makes a big difference. Then you've got the keeper, Jussi Jaaskelainen. He's the longest serving player at the club and is arguably the most consistent keeper in the Premiership."
THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO
"One of the points Sam Allardyce made in his press conference on Thursday was that he is following Arsène Wenger's recruitment policy. In other words he is looking abroad at young players. Bolton have set up an international academy with links to a variety of different clubs in different countries - Australia, China and India for example. Sam has spread his net wider than ever before because he knows that he can't get players of the calibre of N'Gotty, Okocha, Djorkaeff and Stelios on free transfers now, you have to pay big money now. Sam has had to go abroad and look at quality youngsters and he reckons that about 35 to 40 per cent of his youth squad is foreign talent. He has signed a couple of pre-contract players from abroad who might emerge in the years to come. Firstly the Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili, he's the captain of FC Zurich and is already a full international at the age of 20. He is in the same mould as Gary Speed. Then there is Gerald Cid, a centre half from Bordeaux. He's 23, a former French Under-19 international. These are the kind of players Sam is trying to bring through. He's trying to bring the average age of the squad down."
"Bolton have no injuries and Kevin Nolan is back from suspension. Adranik scored twice against Wigan, he did less well against Everton, but Sam told me that he is likely to make way for Nolan because he'll be fresh and he's the captain. Nolan has scored on his last two trips to Arsenal as well. Generally speaking, Sam believes he has found a way of playing Arsenal, of combating their strengths while exploiting their weaknesses. Bolton have been a real thorn in Arsène's side for six seasons now. However, Sam is taking all the pressure off his own players, saying they are not expecting to win."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"As Sam said in his press conference, Arsenal are a great side and it's only because they are short of Henry and Van Persie that they lack a cutting edge at the moment. They have no one to finish off their magnificent approach play. Sam is full of admiration for Arsenal and the way they play. I never tire of watching them and they played really well at the Reebok in the FA Cup in February. Bolton just had to try and live with them and as it happens they did. In fact in extra time they had a chance to score first and if they had it might have been difficult for Arsenal. But the game summed up the problems Arsenal have had. They could have been out of sight in the first half but only scored once. When they play at their best though, in terms of creativity and finishing, teams like Bolton struggle to live with them."
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