Football: Danish `engines' to drive Bolton on

First Division play-off final: Ipswich's manager predicts another happy return to the Premiership for Wanderers
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The Independent Online
BOLTON ARE better equipped to win promotion to the Premiership in today's First Division play-off final at Wembley against Watford, according to the man who knows more than most about the annual end-of- season carnival. "I think it will be close, but on paper you've got to fancy Bolton to win it," George Burley, Ipswich Town's manager, said.

A fortnight ago, Bolton dramatically ended Ipswich's promotional aspirations, condemning them to a third successive play-off exit at the semi-final stage. Although Wanderers lost 4-3 in the semi-final second leg at Portman Road, they triumphed on away goals, having taken the first leg 1-0. Burley expects them to prevail again in this last, winner-takes-all fixture of the season.

"Bolton have got the stronger team, with more experience and international players," Burley said. "Their strength lies in the two Danish midfield players, Per Frandsen and Claus Jensen. They provide good quality balls, have excellent engines working up and down the field, and can score goals."

Frandsen and Jensen have formed a crucial part of a strong Nordic contingent at the Reebok Stadium this season. Frandsen, 29, has scored eight goals from midfield, and has profited from developing an excellent understanding with Jensen, a Danish Under-21 international, since the latter's pounds 1.6m move to Bolton from Lyngby last summer.

"Bolton will be trying to get the Danes on the ball, and break from there," Burley said. "The two strikers [Bob Taylor, who scored twice against Ipswich in the second leg, and the Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen] will hold the ball up and try and get the midfielders to link up."

Should Colin Todd's side win, it would be no more than Bolton supporters have come to expect in recent years. The undisputed yo-yo kings, they were promoted to the Premiership in 1995, relegated in 1996, promoted in 1997, relegated (on goal difference) last year, and are on the threshold of a third year in the Premiership since its inauguration seven years ago.

Watford, in contrast, have not played top flight football for 11 years, but are just one win away from a second successive promotion, having taken the Second Division title last May.

"Graham Taylor's team have shown this season that it's not all just about individuals or quality - it's about people working together as a team," Burley said. "To be fair, Watford have done that all season, and they've had a tremendous finish to the season." He added that Watford have also had the better of recent meetings. "They've already beaten Bolton twice this season, home and away. Bolton will not really be looking forward to playing them."

Taylor's side are making their first appearance at the Twin Towers since their 1984 FA Cup final defeat to Everton. They come to Wembley on the back of a late season surge that has seen them win nine of their last 10 games including their win over Birmingham on penalties.

"Watford were probably not expected to be in the play-offs, but Graham is an experienced manager," Burley said. "The key is their teamwork, and a style of play that can cause people problems, with three up, two wide, and one through the middle. Graham will be wanting to get as many crosses of quality into the box as possible."

Such crosses would likely be met by their goal-scoring hero from the first-leg against Birmingham, the Zairean international, Michel Ngonge, and by Tommy Mooney, whose forward runs from midfield have brought him nine goals this season. "Ngonge is big and strong, he could be quite a handful, and give Bolton problems," Burley said. "Mooney's a versatile lad, he can play on the left, he can play anywhere really."

Whichever team emerges victorious today, Burley believes that life will be far harder amongst the elite next season. "Any team that goes up to the Premiership will struggle - it's as simple as that. The gap has got wider. Sunderland have got an advantage because financially they can compete with the big boys of the Premiership. But for the other teams that go up, it's difficult to compete."

Understandably, given Ipswich's experiences in the last three years, Burley has mixed feelings about the play-off system. "I personally would prefer something like four up, four down, as in Italy, but I don't think the Premiership clubs would agree to that," he said. "What the play-offs do, however, is keep the season alive for most clubs. There's always a possibility to get into that sixth position so you haven't got so many meaningless games at the end of the season, which is good."

What would be better, from Burley's point of view, would be the third- placed team (Ipswich this season) going straight to Wembley and playing the fourth-fifth place winner. "That's an alternative," he said.