Everything pointed to a Bolton win, not least the reversal in the fortunes of these clubs since City barnstormed a 6-2 victory at City of Manchester Stadium in October. City were then 11 points better off than Bolton; at the start yesterday, they had 10 points fewer. What is more, they had not beaten anyone in the Premier League since 1 November.
But just as vultures prepared to head for the Reebok, their beady eyes trained to pick out Kevin Keegan's still thick but these days disturbingly grey head of hair, City came up with a show of defiant support for him. It was led by Robbie Fowler, who himself has critics he would like to silence. In response to an early Bolton goal, Fowler produced two finishes out of his Liverpool memory bank, effectively turning the game in City's favour in the space of four first-half minutes.
Nicolas Anelka was suspended but, typically, Keegan had fielded a City line-up that made no concession to their slide down the table, picking only three recognised defenders among his 10 outfield players, with Shaun Wright-Phillips deployed at right-back.
City fans must question Keegan's wisdom every week and did again yesterday as Bolton took the lead, which they had been threatening with Youri Djorkaeff linking well with his co-strikers Kevin Davies and Henrik Pedersen in a Bolton side similarly built to attack and looking for a rousing send-off before next Sunday's Carling Cup final.
When Djorkaeff's free-kick, floated into the heart of the City box, was ineffectively met by Sylvain Distin, it broke favourably for Kevin Nolan on the left side and his instant strike was too much for David James.
City's positive response, however, brought rapid rewards, Fowler's double strike demonstrating not only vintage finishing but clear evidence that Keegan's side have life in them yet.
Fowler's leveller reflected poorly on Bolton's defending, no one picking up his run as Michael Tarnat's right-wing corner arrived in the six-yard box. Effectively he had a free header as Jussi Jaaskelainen looked around for non-existent protection.
His second, however, was pretty much undefendable, Jon Macken flicking on James's long clearance, Fowler reading its direction perfectly. He took one touch before lashing the ball into the net to Jaaskelainen's left.
"There's only one Kevin Keegan," visiting fans sang. Not for the first time in his career, even in adversity, he finds affection undiminished. Fowler declared last week that the team should take the blame for recent results, rather than Keegan. Yesterday, he seemed on a mission to put matters right.
Confidence high after his eighth and ninth goals of the season, Fowler played a key role in City's third, five minutes into the second half, sending Steve McManaman clear on the left with a clever flick. McManaman's square pass, aimed at Macken, was intercepted by the Bolton defender Simon Charlton but at the cost of an own goal.
City's lead thereafter never looked seriously threatened. Indeed, but for Macken inadvertently getting in the way, Antoine Sibierski's header would have extended it.
"We deserved the points and it is a relief of course," Keegan said. "McManaman and [Claudio] Reyna were outstanding and Fowler is still a world-class player. I'm glad he'll get the headlines - it will make a change from stories about me getting the sack."
Bolton Wanderers 1
Manchester City 3
Fowler 27, 31, Charlton og 50
Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 27,301Reuse content