Let's get straight to the point; Bolton has been absolutely terrible this season. There's a reason they're sitting 19th in the table. Several reasons, actually. Allowing nearly two-and-a-half goals per game (more than any other team in the league) is one of them. Having five clean sheets kept against them hasn't helped either. They've had to endure some pretty tremendous injury struggles as well; Stu Holden and Chung-Yong Lee are both out for most if not all of the season, while numerous other key players have missed significant time. Currently Nigel Reo-Coker is out of action as well. The attrition with which Bolton has been faced makes Villa's injury struggles of last season look quaint by comparison, and the with all due respect Owen Coyle has less talent to work with than did Gerard Houllier.
At full-strength, this is a team that would be expected to finish towards the middle of the table. Without their two best attacking players and a rotating cast of walking wounded rounding out the squad, things have gone quite poorly to say the least. It's tough to see Bolton in the relegation zone come the end of the season, but as it stands they've been one of the worst teams in the league. This is a game from which Villa should expect three points, a brief respite in a hellacious stretch of games and one of the few realistic chances to claim something from the month of December. But like most things relating to Aston Villa at the moment, there's plenty of reason to be concerned; for one, this game is taking place at the Reebok and Villa has been appallingly bad away from home. For another, Bolton has been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the Premier League this season. They've been on the receiving end of a few thumpings, but they've delivered a couple as well: 4-0 over QPR on the first day of the year and 5-0 over Stoke City a month ago. And though it was an early round Carling Cup game, Bolton has beaten Villa this season - pretty handily to boot - playing a far less strong team than Villa put out.
Wins against teams sitting just off the bottom of the table ought to be close to a given, but A) Bolton isn't your typical just off the bottom of the table club and B) Aston Villa. I've given up hope that Alex McLeish is going to alter the teams tactics so that Villa is playing a style that's not completely counterproductive to the talent in the squad, but there's enough quality there that they can still win games such as these. But if they don't, well, it could get ugly fast. McLeish is already an unpopular figure amongst Villa fans, and a loss or uninspiring draw to Bolton will only serve to ratchet up the heat. There's the next month or so of fixtures; Villa sit 9th now, but the gap between 9th and 17th is just six points. Anyone expecting points against Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea? Anyone expecting more than a draw at the Britannia? 16 points doesn't look to terrible now, but 17 on January 1st is a pretty terrifying prospect.
Bolton is there for the taking. Since the waxing of Stoke the Wanderers have lost three in a row. If everything gets clicking on the right day they can put up some gaudy numbers, but that's not likely to happen without a significant amount of help from the opposition. Total shambolic collapse is not something we've seen from Villa this season, aside from their efforts against two of the better sides in England. It's reasonable to expect that Villa will at the very least keep this game close, and as horrendous as Bolton's defense has been this season keeping it close is all it would take to put themselves in position to win. And that's all Villa has to do. Not win impressively, or emphatically, or beautifully. They just need to score more goals than the other dudes. It's happened before. I've seen it with my own eyes! But until they do it again, it's almost impossible to see it happening.