Wanderers are on the rise – the only question is, how far can they go?
A fourth straight victory in League One, a performance as composed and classy as you like, was enough to lift Ian Evatt’s transformed team into 11th spot in the division with 18 games of the season still to play.
Goals from Amadou Bakayoko and Dapo Afolayan did the damage, the only gripe on the night being that Bolton’s first-half dominance was not converted into a hefty lead.
But this was also a victory for a revitalised back line, where George Johnston, Marlon Fossey and Declan John were particularly impressive.
Another satisfying statistic from the night was the fact that Manchester City goalkeeper James Trafford also became the first Bolton Wanderers keeper in history to keep clean sheets in his first four games for the club.
Four of Wanderers’ January signings made the starting line-up, with Afolayan playing the number 10 position after Kieran Lee was rested.
With Bakayoko and Dion Charles through the middle, the team had plenty of bang for their buck but it was in the wide positions that they looked the most dangerous.
Fossey was picked out at every opportunity, galloping into the open spaces on the right, but John’s work on the left was even more effective, as the Welshman continues to revel in this wing-back system.
Some of Bolton’s build up in open play during the first half was a joy to watch.
Aaron Morley pulled the strings in midfield, demanding the ball and flicking it out at angles that made opponents do a double take. Afolayan also looked in the mood, playing deeper than he did on Saturday against Sunderland and running at defenders every chance he got.
Fossey could have walked off with a hat-trick at half time, having got on the end of three different crosses and seen the whites of Dion Charles was also denied by a brilliant near-post block from Jubril Okedina, after Fossey and Afolayan had conspired on the right.
Dimitar Mitov’s goal continued to lead a charmed life as Ricardo Santos headed wide from a corner, John swerved a shot just past the post and Charles hooked another shot just over the bar.
But just as Cambridge looked like they could cave, some sloppiness in possession from skipper Santos invited a first spell of pressure, and Harvey Knibbs saw a header bounce off the angle of post and bar with Trafford beaten.
The visitors grew in confidence for a spell and May went close after another turnover close to the Bolton goal.
Evatt may have had some remedial work to do at the break had the scores stayed level but with six minutes left in the half, the Whites finally made a breakthrough.
Wanderers continue to frustrate from corners but after another one had been tamely cleared, the ball was recycled to John on the right – his unorthodox cross then finding its way to Bakayoko to prod in his sixth goal of the season.
Looking to kill the game off, the Whites made a good start to the second half. Afolayan had a shot pushed around the post by Mitov, having won the ball back himself deep in Cambridge territory and exchanged passes with Charles on the edge of the box.
Moments later, Bolton should have had a penalty. Fossey was played in yet again on the right, beat Harrison Dunk, and appeared to be tripped in the process.
Evatt’s reaction was delayed, retreating to the back of the dugout to watch an instant replay. His mood had deteriorated significantly on his return a few moments later.
The next goal in the game started to feel crucial. Cambridge put pressure on the Bolton box but the defending in front of Trafford remained resolute enough, and Bolton regained contol.
Job Dadi Bodvarsson entered the fray with 25 minutes to go and quickly linked up with Afolayan, who had a smart shot pushed aside by Mitov.
There was no stopping him a few moments later, though, as Brophy’s bad mistake on the ball allowed Bolton to break quickly and Charles fed Afolayan to beat a man and drive a rasping shot into the net for goal number 12 this season.
Still Wanderers hunted. Bodvarsson hit a shot on the turn, saved by Mitov, Kieran Sadlier came on and showed some classy touches in the final stages.
Cambridge might have found a way to make it less comfortable had Sam Smith kept his shot down with 10 minutes to go. Johnston also got a crucial header at the end as sub Lorent Tojal looked to pounce.
Victory was entirely merited, though, as Wanderers outclassed a team that had been unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions.
Evatt even had the luxury of bringing George Thomason off the bench for Charles at the end, as the game’s pace slowed down to a crawl, and thoughts started to turn towards Morecambe at the weekend.
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