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Chelsea at Bolton Wanderers: Match Preview

Johan Elmander is Bolton's major threat as they look to continue Chelsea's miserable away run.
Johan Elmander is Bolton's major threat as they look to continue Chelsea's miserable away run.

Chelsea's home form may be somewhat improved of late, but they haven't won an away game in several months and will be desperate for a win at the Reebok Stadium, which has been historically been something of a home away from home for the Blues. However, things are unlikely to be quite as easy as Chelsea fans remember against a much-improved Bolton Wanderers side, who are currently 9th in the table and just eight points behind Carlo Ancelotti's Blues, thanks in large part to the management of Owen Cyole, who's transformed the club from the a roving band of thugs to something approaching European quality with his insistence on the ability to play a short passing game.

Bolton's improved play seems to have been inspired in large part by the revitalised Johan Elmander, who's somehow turned from an ungainly target forward into a true playmaking striker, capable of weaving through the defence and scoring brilliant goals. His sudden transformation is a real feather in Coyle's cap, and his partnership with the always-dangerous Kevin Davies is going to be a handful for Chelsea's back line, who will probably be reliant on the midfield to cut off the strikers' source of supply.

When Chelsea last played Bolton at Stamford Bridge at the end of December, the Michaen Essien/Ramires pairing had very little trouble dominating their guests in the centre of the pitch, especially as Fabrice Muamba was often preoccupied by Frank Lampard lurking with intent up the pitch. Bolton's inability to control the centre allowed both players to take turns driving forwards, and the winning goal came from a Michael Essien run straight through the middle of the field. Look for Owen Coyle to tweak his formation slightly to deal with Chelsea's double pivot, perhaps dropping Johan Elmander deeper to pick up Ramires, which would result in the Chelsea defence being exposed should Ramires or Essien make one of their trademark surging runs.

As most of you know, Chelsea have some major injury concerns heading into the game, headlined by doubts about the fitness of England duo John Terry and Frank Lampard. While both are 'expected' to be fit for tomorrow's match, neither of them has been able to do much training this week after rib and calf injuries respectively. Their most likely replacements are young prospects Jeffrey Bruma and Josh McEachran, and one suspects that Carlo Ancelotti won't feel very comfortable casting either of them into the fire. Bruma in particular may struggle to deal with Elmander and Davies, and Chelsea will have enough trouble dealing with Bolton's set-piece threat with their first-choice centre back pair!

Up front, it's currently unclear who'll be starting for the Blues after a fairly tame performance from all three of Chelsea first-choice forwards in the 2-0 win against Blackburn Rovers. There's been some noise about dropping Florent Malouda after an indifferent display over the past month or so (partially explained by a persistent ankle injury), but the most likely combination remains Florent Malouda-Didier Drogba-Nicolas Anelka, with Kalou as the first-choice backup for each. With Jose Bosingwa very capable of attacking on the right, Chelsea may set Anelka drifting into the middle of the pitch to pick up space and provide support to the midfield.

Bolton haven't won in the league since December (having lost three of their last four and only drawing with Wigan at home), and are coming off a two-goal defeat at Stoke last week, so now's as good a time to play them as any. Despite their recent poor run of form, we should be expecting a bit of a battle. Bolton aren't as good a side as Chelsea are, but they're still far more accomplished than they have been in the past and a real threat for an upset. The Blues are completely capable of recording a comfortable victory at the Reebok, but then they've lost plenty of winnable games over the past two months, and I'm not certain that the 'bad moment' is over. We'll find out tomorrow.

Before the match, there'll be a twenty minute tribute to Bolton and England Nat Lofthouse, who sadly passed away last week. Kickoff is at 8:00 PM GMT (3:00 PM EST).

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