Another gallant effort from Bolton in the season's least expected European adventure – but it will need a performance to better those already conjured up in Munich and Madrid if the peculiar demands of balancing a Premier League relegation battle with a bid to reach the final rounds of the Uefa Cup are not to come to a close in next week's last-16 second-leg tie in Lisbon.
Gavin McCann gave Gary Megson's team a first-half lead last night that was thoroughly deserved but Simon Vukcevic's equaliser for Sporting with 21 minutes left tips the balance in favour of a classier opponent. Gary Cahill and Andy O'Brien, the centre-backs, enhanced their stature measurably, as did McCann in place of an injured Kevin Nolan, although his booking last night means he will miss the second leg.
Bolton returned from Bayern Munich with an outstanding 2-2 draw in the group stages in November and held Atletico with a magnificent shut-out in Madrid last month but now need to go to Portugal and win, which is a tall order against a team who began their European season in the Champions League.
Last night's line-up was as strong as Megson could put together. Nolan's back problem ruled him out and Jussi Jaaskelainen, the goalkeeper, twisted an ankle in the warm-up, but apart from those two, El-Hadji Diouf (suspended) and Gretar Steinsson (ineligible), it was the same team that lost to Liverpool last Sunday.
Faced with a towering, physical front three in Matt Taylor, Kevin Davies and Heidar Helguson, Sporting looked uncomfortable against any ball into their box, and so it was when Davies and Helguson jumped in turn for Nicky Hunt's 25th-minute cross. The ball fell to Taylor, whose shot was blocked but rebounded invitingly for McCann to sweep the ball past goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Since Nicolas Anelka moved on, Bolton have not easily found the net. Yet they had other opportunities last night. Taylor had an effort blocked, with Patricio out of his penalty area, before the opening goal and might have scored twice in the closing minutes. Helguson headed against the bar early in the second half.
But where Bolton's strength and power had been the dominant feature in the first half, Sporting's technical superiority held sway in the second. Vukcevic's equaliser was signposted moments earlier when Leandro Romagnoli hit the woodwork with a wonderful effort from wide on the left. It was a burst of pace through the middle that brought Vukcevic his goal, the Montenegrin striker leaving Cahill in his slipstream before curling the ball sweetly beyond the reach of Ali Al Habsi. "Bolton are quite a physical team and we could not play the way we would have liked," the Sporting coach, Paulo Bento, said. "But the goal has given us a good position for the second leg."
Megson's team will hope to unsettle them with more of the same, although his line-up will have a different make-up, three days before a potentially crucial Premier League match at Wigan. "We were always going to select a team with an eye on the Wigan match and tonight's result makes no difference to that," the Bolton manager said.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-2-3): Al Habsi; Hunt, Cahill, A O'Brien, Gardner; Campo (Teymourian, 84); J O'Brien (Guthrie, 67), McCann; Davies, Helguson (Giannakopoulos, 55), Taylor. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Samuel, Meite, Vaz Te.
Sporting Lisbon (4-1-4-1): Patricio; Ferreira (Romagnoli, h-t), Tonel, Polga, Grimi; Veloso; Pereirinha, Moutinho, Vukcevic, Izmailov (Gladstone, 84); Tiui (Adrien Silva, 79). Substitutes not used: Stojkovic (gk), Pedro Silva, Purovic, Farnerud.
Referee: A Yefet (Israel).