Bolton Wanderers are staring ever more bleakly at relegation after Gareth Barry's two goals and two assists hauled Aston Villa out of their own bad run. The England midfielder took star billing in a game that for almost an hour was anything but one-sided yet still underlined why these clubs are having such contrasting campaigns.
While Villa remain in the race for Europe after matching their biggest League win of the season, Bolton are in disarray after equalling their heaviest defeat. "The second goal meant we were facing a real uphill battle and we conceded some really sloppy goals then," said Gary Megson, their manager. "But I don't think anybody has given up and I would be disappointed if that's the case. Our game against West Ham next Saturday is now a must-win."
This defeat will not have shattered morale like last weekend's collapse against Arsenal, although Bolton again conceded three times in the final half an hour or so from a position of considerable hope. They frequently stretched Villa, only for misfortune, defensive vulnerability and lack of belief to undermine them. One point out of 24 and seven goals in 12 games tells a story that can surely have only one ending.
Barry scored Villa's last goal before their recent three-game losing run and needed only nine minutes here to end a team drought nearing five hours' playing time, Ashley Young skipping past Kevin Davies on Bolton's right and crossing well for his captain to power in a close-range header.
Villa's nervousness had already been apparent, but the recalled Heidar Helguson headed over from Matt Taylor's centre and Danny Guthrie sliced wide following Olof Mellberg's awful header. Davies's centre then bounced off Scott Carson's bar and Taylor's long-range free-kick deflected a yard wide off the wall but Bolton wilted against the pace on the break of the inspired Young.
After Martin Laursen struck the post from an acute angle, Villa took command with two goals in four minutes up to the hour, the first of them an absolute gem, fashioned by the movement of the ball at pace down the left between Wilfred Bouma, John Carew and Young. Barry was released in space and crossed for Gabriel Agbonlahor to stretch and slide past Ali Al Habsi for his first goal since late December.
Bolton were condemned to a 10th successive game without victory when, from Young's blocked shot, Barry fired in left-footed via a telling touch off Joey O'Brien's back. The fourth, headed in by the substitute Marlon Harewood from an unmarked, possibly offside position, hardly mattered, so dishevelled and dispirited had Bolton become.
Villa's manager Martin O'Neill, by contrast, was a contented man. "It was a pressure game for us and we handled it very well," he said. "There were some great performances."