BOLTON ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: Stuart Holden of Bolton Wanderers in action during the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON 4th Round match between Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic on January 29 2011 in Bolton England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
As much as we've complained about Villa's boring style and underwhelming performances so far this season, there are quite a few teams that would kill to be in their position right now. One of those teams, clearly is Bolton. The Trotters pulled something of a "reverse Villa" last season; perennially one of the most unpleasant teams to watch in the league, last year's Bolton team was a breath of fresh air. Whereas in the past they'd been a team very much like Stoke or, well, this year's Aston Villa, last season they were fun, they ran and they scored some goals. Bolton was in the hunt for the European places for a significant chunk of the season and made it to the semifinals of the FA Cup. But things fell off at the end, and things aren't going well so far this year; the Whites opened the season by thumping an as of yet un-strengthened QPR side but have struggled against some very stiff competition in the weeks since. Their most recent game was a 2-1 loss at home to Norwich City, and while it's easy to dismiss losses to some of the Premier Leagues best sides losing in your own pitch to the weakest of the newly promoted sides is another matter entirely.
Bolton's fortunes shifted with two months remaining in the 2010/11 season when their player of the season Stuart Holden was lost for the year after suffering a severe ACL injury at the hands of Jonny Evans. Well, guess what; Holden is back for this evening's game, and anyone that paid attention to the Wanderers last season will know that this is a very different team with him in the side. It's difficult to imagine that Holden is going to be anything near his best just yet, but if he can provide something approaching the creative spark and industry which made him such a valuable player last season it could be just what Bolton needs to get things back on track. There's another familiar face in Bolton's midfield; Nigel Reo-Coker should be expected to start, having apparently chosen a team that finished 14th in the Premier League last season over the numerous offers of Champions League football sent his way. Reo-Coker is what he is (some might say he's exactly the kind of player we need in midfield in fact!) and while he's unlikely to do anything that severely harms Villa's chances (at least in a single-event sense) his mere presence on the field is certain to ignore me. (edit: pretty sure Aaron means "annoy me," but NRC is likely to ignore Mr. Campeau as well -ks)
Given the players in Bolton's back line their struggles defensively are quite difficult to understand, but something is quite clearly not going right. They've allowed 13 goals, ahead only of Arsenal in the league, and even with the gaudy number put up by Manchester United removed their 8 in 5 games would be less than confidence inspiring. Something just isn't clicking at the back, and it has to be frustrating as the Whites have actually been quite decent in the attacking phase. Luckily for Bolton, they're playing Aston Villa.
And they're probably (hopefully?) going to be playing an Aston Villa side at something less than full strength. Darren Bent cannot possibly start this game; he shouldn't have started the last two, and though the Carling Cup is a competition I want Villa to take seriously I also thing that putting Bent on the field at the risk of fitness later in the week (or season) would be cosmically stupid. This game was made for players like Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Delfouneso. Bolton's not at all a bad side and they're certainly better than their record so far this season but the odds of their starting a full-strength lineup (especially given their early struggles) are quite slim. These early round Carling Cup games are where you learn what you have in your young players.
I want to make a run at the Carling Cup. For one, there's the European qualification and it's nice to see teams you don't get to watch very often (assuming they are not Rapid Vienna.) For another, the longer you're in it the more you get to evaluate your youngsters and, as the rounds progress, begin to mix those who've performed the best with the first team. That's a benefit to competitions such as this that I think is overlooked. But even if Villa play the kids and lose tomorrow, that doesn't make it a bad decision. There's a whole lot of season left, and some of the youngsters are going to have to be called upon. Better to save the guys you know you're going to need all year and get a good look at the unknowns against quality competition while you can.