Mathematics might dictate that it is still possible for Bolton Wanderers to be relegated, but it is not going to happen. Only an inconceivable set of results next Sunday will prevent them from playing in the Premier League next season. This win conspired with results elsewhere to give them a three-point gap over Reading and Fulham and as they have a significantly superior goal difference, it is going to take catastrophic defending by Bolton in their final game against Chelsea to condemn them. It could become the Stamford Bridge of sighs, but it is unlikely.
The victory, secured over a disappointing Sunderland by El-Hadji Diouf's sixth strike of the season and an own goal from Daryl Murphy, culminated a remarkably timely burst of form from Bolton, who have taken 10 points from a possible 12 in the last three weeks. Given that they accrued only one in their previous eight matches, it is a remarkable transformation. Dr Jekyll could take lessons.
The relief at the end was palpable. Gary Megson, the Bolton manager, threw his arms in the air and then hugged his Sunderland counterpart, Roy Keane, while the players did an impromptu tour of the ground throwing shirts into the crowd. The Reebok, meanwhile, rocked to the sound of supporters chanting "We are staying up".
They are almost certainly right but Megson was not counting chickens. "This is Bolton," he said. "It will take a huge turn-around in fortune to get us relegated now," he said, "but it's still a possibility. We have to ensure that we don't celebrate and go down to Chelsea and put in a good performance.
"We had to perform today because we knew where we are going next week, but we still had to get a win against one of the form teams in the division."
Bolton had the luxury of starting this game after everyone else had played yesterday, and if they had ordered a set of results they could not have asked for much better. Defeats for Reading and Birmingham meant they knew they had the chance to put distance between themselves and the relegation places, but they made heavy weather of it at first.
For 40 minutes the crowd had to watch a Bolton team too nervous to express themselves, and a Sunderland side who were too relaxed because of securing their safety last week. The result was a midfield encounter too anaemic to merit the word battle.
Sunderland had the ball in the net after 18 minutes, though it would have been obvious from space that Michael Chopra had fouled goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi in the build-up, and the first legitimate effort did not come until eight minutes later when Gary Cahill headed Jlloyd Samuel's throw-in straight at Craig Gordon in the Sunderland goal. The clearest chance in this period fell to Kevin Davies, who headed too high from Diouf's pass after 28 minutes.
It was a waste but it revealed that Sunderland's weak spot was crosses from the right and Bolton exploited it three minutes before half-time. Kevin Nolan delivered to Diouf at the far post and the striker controlled with one touch and then curled a right-foot shot into the top corner. It was a moment of quality quite apart from what had gone before.
Bolton could have gone further ahead in the 54th minute when Diouf hit the post with a header but the precariousness of their position was reinforced 16 minutes later when Andy Reid crossed, Roy O'Donovan headed down and Kenwyne Jones just failed to make contact with his lunge.
Diouf headed wide after 73 minutes to turn up the tension and the game was heading for a nailbiting climax until Bolton got a piece of luck that they needed. Matt Taylor took a corner on the left, the Sunderland defenders were preoccupied with Nolan's menacing presence near the goalline and Murphy inadvertently headed towards his own goal. The ball was cleared, but it had already gone over the line.
With that Bolton could relax and the final minutes were played in an almost party atmosphere that Megson may have welcomed. But it grated with Keane, who described the Sunderland performance as unacceptable. "I made three substitutions and I could have taken 10 players off," he said. Were there any plus points? "It was sunny," he replied.Reuse content