x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Back to the reality of a relegation battle for Bolton Wanderers

Lancashire derby gives club a chance to focus on football after the emotion surrounding Fabrice Muamba on-pitch heart attack.

Bolton were back in training on Thursday and trying to focus on tomorrow's key clash with local rivals Blackburn Rovers. Andrew Yates / AFP
Bolton were back in training on Thursday and trying to focus on tomorrow's key clash with local rivals Blackburn Rovers. Andrew Yates / AFP

On the night he became Barcelona's record goalscorer, Lionel Messi wore a T-shirt dedicated to another player. The greatest footballer of his generation was declaring his backing for a fellow professional who, a week ago, was battling for a place in the Bolton Wanderers midfield.

Since then, Fabrice Muamba has endured, and seemingly won, a fight for his life. Barcelona, in the words of their motto, "mes que un club", are more than a club. In seven traumatic days, Muamba has become more than a footballer.

Since he suffered a cardiac arrest in last Saturday's FA Cup quarter-final, Muamba has united a divided sport.

Well-wishers have included Real Madrid as well as Barcelona. As he has lain in London's Chest Hospital, Muamba, 23, has received visitors from Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea players. Outside Bolton's Reebok Stadium is a mosaic of shirts and scarves from well-wishers, supporters of local rivals, bitter enemies and far-flung clubs as well as Wanderers.

His sudden, shocking collapse prompted some of football's classiest individuals to act. Within hours, the Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo said their 5-0 win over Fiorentina was for Muamba.

Thierry Henry crossed the Atlantic to be at his former colleague's bedside. Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, and Kevin Davies, the club captain, have showed their stature as they brought leadership and dignity to an impossible situation.

But now it is back to the reality of a relegation battle. While Bolton worried about Muamba, a victory by Queens Park Rangers over Liverpool on Wednesday put Wanderers back in the bottom three.

Blackburn Rovers visit the Reebok Stadium today for a derby that had long been pinpointed as a pivotal game at the foot of the table. As Bolton take the field for the first time since the abandonment of their game at White Hart Lane, it has assumed a different significance. Fans will be given placards to show their support for their stricken midfielder and advertising hoardings will proclaim messages to and about Muamba, rather than commercial endorsements.

In a match that once seemed an essentially local affair, there will be a groundswell of goodwill towards Bolton. None of which makes a home win the more likely. Indeed, the manager faces an awkward task in selecting his side.

"We are all affected differently and if anyone isn't ready to undertake a match, that's fine," Coyle said in a display of compassion. Mark Davies, one of Muamba's closest friends and probably Bolton's player of the year, is not certain to figure.

It makes for a complex balancing act. "The first thoughts will be with Fabrice and making sure that recovery continues," Coyle said, aware that Muamba, though improved, remains in intensive care.

"But, equally, we have to go and play a game. It is as simple as that. Is it difficult circumstances? Yes. But it pales into insignificance compared to the fight Fabrice has had. We have to go and play the game and do our best in the match."

The aim is to ensure Muamba returns to a Premier League club, in whatever capacity. "If Fabrice plays again that's great," Coyle said. His primary concerns he said, were that Muamba "is fit and well" for his fiancee Shauna and his son Josh, and his parents. "As a football club, we will be with Fabrice every step of the way. He is part of our family and always will be."

Through their collective concern in adversity, the Bolton family seem closer and stronger. After the ceasefire in hostilities, however, their 11 representatives on the pitch are tasked with extricating Wanderers from the drop zone.

Blackburn, hoping to continue their revival, are charged with depriving of three points the club who have received messages of sympathy from across the football world.

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