Football: Battling Bolton

Bolton Wanderers 1 Paatelainen 14 Middlesbrough 0 Attendance: 18,370
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THE roar of relief which greeted the final whistle was as equally heartfelt as the midweek Burnden Park celebrations, when Bolton reached the Coca-Cola Cup final. The prospects of entering the Premiership land of milk and honey matters just as much as their cup exploits.

This was a must-win game for the home side if they were to reduce the gap between themselves and second-placed Middlesbrough. The full-throttle commitment, and consequent lack of finesse, was typical of a cup tie - and Bolton are a difficult side to beat in those circumstances.

The visitors dominated the second half, but a sturdy Wanderers' defence held firm, despite a succession of tense goalmouth scrambles. The heavy pitch was not conducive to a flowing game and the early Middlesbrough tactics of containing the game in a crowded midfield also resulted in precious few moments of quality in the first half.

Bolton's threat came from two quarters, the intricacy and delayed runs of Richard Sneekes, and the left foot of Alan Thompson, who was allowed far too much room on the left flank by the full-back Neil Cox.

It was predictable when the Bolton goal came from the Thompson supply- line. His cross was whipped into no-man's land, Middlesbrough were hesitant and Mixu Paatelainen stabbed home at the far post.

A similar plot, with Jimmy Phillips the provider, saw a Jason McAteer shot saved well. Middlesbrough's only real threat of the first half was a bobbling shot from player-manager Bryan Robson, who had been largely anonymous until that point, which struck the base of the post after squeezing through a packed area.

Robson was substituted at the interval and the close control of his replacement, Jaime Moreno, created more time for Middlesbrough invention. They began to use the grassier flanks, pushing John Hendrie into a wider role.

The level of urgency was stepped up, but the territorial supremacy left Middlesbrough occasionally vulnerable on the counter-attack. Two jinking runs into the Bolton area by Robbie Mustoe, frustrated by sprawling bodies, summed up the visitors' plight.

Phillips recognised that the midweek's exertions had played a part in Bolton's patchy performance. "We are just pleased we have won a game when we haven't played particularly well. They changed their tactics in the second half and played with two forwards, which made it hard for us," he said.