MATCH VERDICT: Bolton Wanderers 0 Brighton 2
AFTER a few weeks of rolling lucky dice and scaling ladders, Wanderers again find themselves sliding down snakes; the question is has Dougie Freedman played too many games with his line-up?
It could be described as a no-win situation for the Whites boss, who, let’s face it, probably would not have been praised for his team selection had everything gone swimmingly against Brighton.
But after watching the gameplan go wrong again at the Reebok, the Scot will know full well that questions will be fired his way.
While Mark Davies’s absence was explained away as part of a flu-like bug that has spread around the camp, it was hard to understand some of Freedman’s other alterations.
Zat Knight will feel desperately unlucky to have been dropped after two of his best performances in recent memory, likewise the dynamic Neil Danns, who had rediscovered some of his top form in the last few weeks.
Joe Mason’s inclusion was no surprise at all – but the role he was asked to play, in behind Lukas Jutkiewicz as opposed to alongside him – seemed to limit his effectiveness.
Both Chung-Yong Lee and Liam Trotter were drafted into midfield but looked lost in their positions against a well-drilled and efficient Brighton outfit.
Perversely, it was six years to the day since Wanderers had bowed out of Europe at Sporting Lisbon, Gary Megson naming that evening the most scrutinised line-up in living memory.
One wonders what might have happened if he had seen his decision to name an under-strength team backed up with a result at Wigan Athletic the following weekend?
Megson never rid himself of the stigma of that night and will probably never be forgiven by the Wanderers fans who made the trip to Lisbon. But on such decisions a manager’s fate lies – and in a similar way, Freedman’s penchant for rotating his squad continually nags at the minds of the Reebok regulars.
It doesn’t help that the Whites boss still cannot buy any luck, as the decision to rule out Mason’s “equaliser” showed four minutes before Will Buckley completed his match-winning double.
The in-form front man can clearly be seen in replays standing in line with Brighton defender Gordon Greer as he turned the ball in on the hour mark.
It isn’t quite back to square one for Wanderers, who have made progress in the last month, regardless of this result.
But it is hardly the way they would have wanted a run of four out of five home games to start, and was most certainly a performance that allowed Freedman’s critics to surface in number once more.
Brighton made just one enforced change from their midweek win over QPR, as Keith Andrews was not allowed to play against his parent club.
Oscar Garcia’s men are classy in possession and give little away at the back and had they been able to count on injured stars like Craig Mackail-Smith or Andrew Crofts more often this term, they would already be shoo-ins for a play-off spot.
The Seagulls are so well-suited to taking the sting out of a game and retaining the ball once they have nudged ahead, just as they did 13 minutes in at the Reebok.
Buckley’s first goal owed much to the space that Leonardo Ulloa was given on the left to drive a cross to the near post. Buckley brought a superb reaction save out of Adam Bogdan with his first touch, but then reacted faster than Alex Baptiste and David Wheater to spin and fire into the top corner with his second.
It was the kind of ruthlessness that Wanderers lacked all day, even though they worked hard to get back level.
Baptiste and fellow full-back Alan Hutton offered the little width the Whites had – and both full-backs will be relatively pleased with their day’s work.
Brighton keeper Tomasz Kuszczak was also in good form, palming over Wheater’s close range header and getting fingertips to Medo’s curling shot after Jay Spearing had laid off a free-kick on the edge of the box.
The former Manchester United man was by far the busier of the two keepers but he was also helped out by a back four who looked determined to retain their clean sheet.
Blocks from Stephen Ward and Gordon Greer had denied Mason and Jutkiewicz from close range – so while Wanderers headed down the tunnel at half time a goal down, they were not too dispirited.
For 15 minutes of the second half an equaliser looked inevitable.
Trotter could have rescued his day when played through by Tim Ream, only for his shot to skew embarrassingly wide, before Mason drilled a shot agonisingly across goal.
Freedman sent Rob Hall on for his first game since December 29 but, in truth, the youngster failed to make a dent.
Mason thought he had levelled the scores on the hour when he turned in Chung-Yong’s low blast, so did the stadium’s announcer, who signalled the goal music. The linesman thought otherwise.
Bolton-born Dale Stephens forced Bogdan into a good save as the game opened up, but seconds later, Medo’s toe-poke challenge on Jake Caskey wrong-footed Ream and allowed Buckley to run through and slot his second goal past Bogdan.
Freedman tried to change the game by introducing Danns and Moritz late on and switching to a back three for the rest of the game, but it was to no avail.
A few half-chances fell by the wayside late on, Baptiste and Danns heading wide from close range.
But Brighton had done the hard work and saw the game out in relative comfort.
After all the elation of wins over Watford, Blackburn and Leeds, this has been a quick comedown for those who lingered around the Reebok to register their displeasure at another poor home performance.
The path between pitch and drawing board is a well-worn one for Freedman – and there are some who question whether he has made the trip too often.
He will need to rediscover that winning formula quickly if he is to avoid recent progress slipping backwards.
Whether he sticks to it is another matter altogether.