Bolton Wanderers have resembled Pinocchio throughout this arduous Premier League campaign: toothless up front, wooden going forward and lacking a spine. Sadly, all these qualities were on display here yesterday as they surrendered a two-goal lead to draw with West Bromwich Albion.
In the sort of scenario that is all too common in the fraught league run-ins, the Trotters were out of the bottom three and two points ahead of QPR with only moments to go. But their capitulation, coupled with a Djibril Cissé winner at Loftus Road, left Owen Coyle's men desperately needing a win at Stoke next week if they are to survive.
"There is no getting away from how disappointing it is to draw. We were well placed to win and had some great chances," Coyle said, before declaring that Wanderers would survive with a win at the Britannia Stadium.
Kevin Davies was guilty of missing some glorious openings. A beautiful, raking diagonal had picked out Martin Petrov and the left-winger had rolled the ball across the box to Davies, but he blazed over from six yards. Moments later, the striker failed to finish off another chance, fluffing his lines at the back post. Davies would later be thwarted marvellously by Ben Foster, who could yet make himself available for Euro 2012 duty.
Those chances were all the more precious as the fluidity of the Albion midfield was causing Bolton all manner of problems. Roaming from wide, Chris Brunt missed the target when slipped in, while Shane Long hit a post after easily spinning Tim Ream.
Coyle has in recent weeks chosen to reinstate Davies in a quest for goals. While his shooting was off yesterday, the target man's presence was enough to unsettle Albion. In the 24th minute his potential for trouble led to his namesake team-mate Mark being wrestled to the ground. The Reebok bayed for a penalty and referee Kevin Friend obliged. Petrov's trusty left foot sent Foster diving to his right but in vain.
Despite being a goal down, Roy Hodgson's team made it easy to see why are much revered away from The Hawthorns. Outside the top three, only Newcastle and Liverpool have a better record on the road. The way in which their midfield quartet are at ease in possession and able to interchange gives a classy edge. If the same attitude is instilled by the manager when he moves to the international stage, it should serve England well this summer.
Nobody could justifiably level any paltry accusations that Hodgson, and his team, had their mind on other things, either. "Headlines have to be written. Things have been said about the timing by the FA and whether we would take games seriously. We knew the magnitude of the game, particularly for Bolton. We were very conscious of that," assistant manager Keith Downing said.
As the game wore on Albion started to turn the screw and Liam Ridgewell, careering up from left- back, stung the palms of Adam Bogdan. Then Graeme Dorrans tried his luck only to send a tame effort straight at the goalkeeper. For all Albion's pressing, though, they succumbed to a goal on the break in the 72nd minute – and it was one that augured well for Wanderers' chances in the relegation battle. For it contained the all-important ingredient of luck.
Petrov, who was imperious all afternoon, galloped down the left and for the first time, failed to pick out a white shirt. No matter, Ridgewell's attempted clearance smashed against the unfortunate Billy Jones and beyond a hapless Foster. The points seemed secure, safety almost assured.
But all the luck in the world cannot stop inept defending and the fragile spine was soon picked to pieces. Brunt slotted calmly to reduce the arrears and set up a nail-biting final 15 minutes. The tension was too much and the limp backbone was broken again when Simon Cox found a pocket of space in the penalty area and James Morrison met to thunder home a late equaliser.
So what had looked like a fairy-tale Sunday – a survival win and a comeback after a season injured for Lee Chung-yong – quickly became a nightmare.
No Pinocchio, Coyle was brutally honest in his assessment. "It didn't have to be pretty, what we had to be in the final minutes was effective," he said. "We were neither, if truth be told. We didn't retain possession, dropped deep and didn't pick up opponents."
Bolton: BOGDAN 7/10; BOYATA 7; WHEATER 6; REAM 5; RICKETTS 6; EAGLES 6; REO-COKER 6; M DAVIES 7; PETROV 8; K DAVIES 7; NGOG 5
WBA: FOSTER 7; RIDGEWELL 7; OLSSON 7; McAULEY 6; JONES 6; DORRANS 6; ANDREWS 7; MULUMBU 6; BRUNT 7; LONG 6; FORTUNE 6
Scorers: Bolton: Petrov pen 24, Jones og 72. WBA: Brunt 75, Morrison 90
Substitutes: Bolton Wanderers Knight 5 (Wheater, h-t), Klasnic 5 (Ngog, 68), Lee (Petrov, 81). West Bromwich Albion Morrison (Andrews, 74), Scharner (Mulumbu, 78), Cox (Dorrans, 81).
Booked: Bolton Boyata. WBA Jones, Long, Andrews, Brunt.
Man of the match Petrov. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Bolton 48% WBA 52%.
Attempts on target: Bolton 6 WBA 13.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire). Attendance 25,662.