Everton continue their quest to reach Wembley this weekend, making the short distance trip to the Reebok Stadium to play Bolton.
Much has changed for Wanderers since their relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season as they adapt to life outside the top flight for the first time in 11 years.
To help preview the FA Cup fourth round tie, evertonfc.com spoke to Jack Dearden, Bolton commentator for BBC Radio Manchester.
Dearden, who has covered the Trotters for over 15 seasons, has picked out the player he believes could cause Everton the most problems on Saturday afternoon and offered his verdict on Bolton’s season to date – a campaign which sees the Lancastrians occupy 16th place in the Championship with nearly two thirds of the season now played.
What have you made to Bolton’s first season back in the Championship?
I think we have got to be honest and realistic – it’s been disappointing from a Bolton Wanderers perspective. So far they haven’t been able to mount something that would add up to a promotion challenge and although I wouldn’t say yet that it is impossible, it is looking more and more unlikely with each passing game. They need to record a couple of back-to-back victories and if that’s achieved then it could alter the whole picture.
Some positive news for Bolton is that they have now got a few players returning from injury. Mark Davies has missed a couple of months with a shoulder problem and he is one that can get the team playing. David Wheater has been out for the whole season and he is another that isn’t too far way, while Stuart Holden also had a run-out in the win at Sunderland in the previous round – his first game in 18 months. Add that to new recruit Craig Davies and any other signings that Dougie Freedman makes in the January transfer window and things are looking a lot better.
I won’t go as far to say that Bolton will win promotion this year but, like I say, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them still challenging for a play-off place. That is the best they can hope for at the moment, but the Wanderers have got to get moving. Every time they play and an opportunity to win passes them by, it makes the task even more difficult.
One thing I have noticed though is that they do look a little bit more solid and a little bit more difficult to beat since Dougie Freedman took over in October.
Freedman has now had three months at the helm since replacing Owen Coyle. Have you noticed a difference in the way Bolton are playing?
Only time will tell but I think he has been a pretty decent choice. I think you can see a significant difference in the method he wants the team to play and I get the feeling that he wants a higher level of fitness from his players.
He has done okay so far and, in my opinion, now he has had these three months he has realised that it is a bigger job than he originally anticipated.
He knows the lower leagues too. He has gone on record to say that he might be trying to sign players that aren’t as good as the ones Bolton have got already but that’s because he wants players that have got a desire, determination and a point to prove.
Who has been Bolton’s stand-out player this season?
There haven’t been too many who have had a stand-out season and there lies the big problem. But in my view, Bolton’s most dangerous and consistent player has been Chris Eagles. He always looks threatening and a player who is capable of winning a game by himself, although by his own admission he probably hasn’t done as well in the last few weeks.
The last time Everton played Bolton was just over a year ago. How has Wanderers’ squad changed since then?
It’s a much changed team since that never-to-be-forgotten night at Goodison Park when Tim Howard scored, and the Everton fans will probably raise an eyebrow in surprise when they look at the players who have since moved on. But that is always going to be for clubs like Bolton - if a big money offer comes in for someone like Gary Cahill, who scored the winning goal in that game last year, they are not in a position to turn it down.
The likes of Paul Robinson, Ivan Klasnic, Gretar Steinsson and Jussi Jaaskelainen have all moved on as well.
They have just off-loaded Martin Petrov to Espanyol too, which is a clear indication that they need to get high earners off the wage bill. The whole aspect of Bolton Wanderers has changed since their relegation from the Premier League, but it was inevitable that would happen to any club that went down.
How well did Bolton play in the previous round when they knocked out Sunderland?
The 2-2 draw in the first match probably summarises Bolton’s season. When you are winning by two goals and you get pegged back, in the immediate aftermath it can feel like a defeat. Sunderland, to be fair, completely dominated in the latter stages but Bolton hung on for the replay.
Many people would probably think it was a bit of a surprise to see them win at the Stadium of Light last week, especially as Sunderland had a very strong team out. The first half didn’t sparkle, but Bolton looked solid and the longer the game went on, they began to play better. Sunderland were poor but you can’t take anything away from Wanderers because that was an excellent win, a result which is put into context when you see that Sunderland went away to Wigan at the weekend and got all three points.
Given Bolton’s league position and their promotion ambitions, how much emphasis do you think they will put on Saturday’s game?
Bolton take the FA Cup seriously and the competition could become even more important for them now. If you can’t make a challenge for promotion then the next best thing is a good cup run. Equally, you can gain some momentum from a cup run - we have seen on many occasions that teams win a couple of FA Cup games and there is an improvement in their league form on the back of that.
Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s tie and how do you envisage it being played?
I’ve got a sneaky feeling that it will end in a draw. If that happens, clearly Everton will be in the box-seat but you can never tell in the FA Cup, as illustrated by Bolton’s win at Sunderland last Tuesday. I’m one of those people - probably because of my age - that still thinks the FA Cup is a brilliant competition. It’s still the greatest knockout competition in the world, so I’m hoping it’s a good tie. There will be great support by Everton as well which will add to the occasion.
Following this weekend's FA Cup tie, Everton return to Goodison Park with back-to-back home matches against West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa. Tickets are still available - to reserve your seat call 0871 663 1878, visit the Park End Box Office, Everton Two or the TicketQuarter, or buy online by clicking here