Seven key battles to watch when Bolton Wanderers take on Oxford at Wembley

The excitement is building as Bolton look to return to the Championship for the first time since 2019 and finish off a season of high drama and plenty of goals by lifting the play-off trophy.

Oxford United have their own story to finish. It is only 14 years since they were playing National League football, and after eight long seasons in this division this could be their best opportunity to climb back into the second tier – a level they have not occupied since 1999.

Wanderers have had the edge in two previous games this season, earning a goalless draw in November and then putting on a masterclass in front of the TV cameras in March and running out 5-0 winners at the Toughsheet.

Past results count for nothing in the play-off final but we have looked at the likely line-ups, the previous encounters, and the season’s statistics to suss out where seven key battles may be fought on the pitch, or in the dugout.

The Bolton News: Goalkeepers Nathan Baxter and Jamie Cummng came through the Chelsea youth set-upGoalkeepers Nathan Baxter and Jamie Cummng came through the Chelsea youth set-up (Image: Camerasport)

NATHAN BAXTER v JAMIE CUMMING

Both Chelsea alumni – neither man will want a busy game, but both must be prepared to take the spotlight if a dreaded penalty shoot-out is needed.

Baxter’s record from the spot is pretty good, according to data supplied by Transfermrkt.com. Counting games from National League and above he has saved nine of 31 penalties faced (29 per cent).

Cumming has played fewer games but of the 26 penalties he has faced, he has stopped three of them (11.5 per cent) – two in the colours of MK Dons, one at Gillingham.

The Oxford stopper will want to avoid the sort of error that gifted Josh Dacres-Cogley the second goal in their 5-0 defeat at the Toughsheet back in March, and see more of the sort of form which helped keep Peterborough out in the latter stages of their play-off semi-final.

The home leg defeat to Barnsley was Baxter’s first since he returned from injury and of his 17 clean sheets this season, one did come against Oxford back at the Kassam Stadium in November – coincidentally, the only goalless draw he has been involved in as a Bolton player.

The Bolton News: Gethin Jones will have his work cut out handling the pacy Josh MurphyGethin Jones will have his work cut out handling the pacy Josh Murphy (Image: Camerasport)

GETHIN JONES v JOSH MURPHY

Murphy’s pace is one of Oxford’s most obvious threats and the former Cardiff City man is probably looking forward to testing himself in the open spaces of Wembley.

Jones has got bags of experience and won’t mind testing Murphy the other way if Bolton have possession.

Des Buckingham used a back three and Kyle Edwards on the left flank in the first meeting between the two sides this season, Murphy tucking into a more central role when he came off the bench.

But if the U’s stick with the 4-2-3-1 that has served them well of late, Jones will have to be on his toes to make sure Murphy does not get any encouragement.

Counting for the Bolton vice-skipper is the fact he has played well in both meetings with Oxford this term.

The Bolton News: Wanderers skipper Ricardo Santos will be looking to bounce back with a big performance at Wembley against Mark HarrisWanderers skipper Ricardo Santos will be looking to bounce back with a big performance at Wembley against Mark Harris (Image: Camerasport)

RICARDO SANTOS v MARK HARRIS

The Bolton captain won’t need reminding of his error in the second half against Barnsley, which put the collywobbles on what had been a pretty comfortable night. His imperious performance in the first leg showed Santos at his best, and even though there have been some concerns over a calf injury which has been with him for the past few months, he remains the key man at the back.

Harris has anchored Oxford’s attack well this season and is now one away from joining Dion Charles on the magical 20-goal marker. He is in good touch, too, having scored six times in his last six games.

His record in the two starts against Bolton has been pretty sparse, however, with no shots on goal and just four touches inside the penalty box.

Having watched Sam Cosgrove’s performance for Barnsley in the two semi-final legs, Harris may well feel he could get some change out of Santos and Co when it matters most.

The Bolton News: Josh Sheehan has been Bolton's chief playmaker this season, while Ruben Rodrigues has proved an excellent number 10Josh Sheehan has been Bolton’s chief playmaker this season, while Ruben Rodrigues has proved an excellent number 10 (Image: Camerasport)

JOSH SHEEHAN v RUBEN RODRIGUES

Could well be re-titled ‘battle of the most fouled players in League One’ – Rodrigues winning that particular contest by 101 to 85 in the regular season.

Sheehan has been hugely important for Bolton, knitting together endless passages of possession and very often coming up with the killer pass. His vision to pick out the darting runs of Dion Charles or set free the pace of wide men Josh Dacres-Cogley or Randell Williams has so often been the difference.

The Welshman was the best player on the park in the 5-0 home win back in March, making one goal for George Thomason and then scoring one himself.

Like Sheehan, Rodrigues has found himself targeted by opponents since signing from Notts County. The former Den Bosch man plays further forward, as a number 10, and boasts slightly more of a direct goal threat than Sheehan, with nine to his name so far.

The Bolton News: Paris Maghoma's attacking skills will be key for Wanderers, while Oxford will look towards the influential Cameron BrannaganParis Maghoma’s attacking skills will be key for Wanderers, while Oxford will look towards the influential Cameron Brannagan (Image: Camerasport)

PARIS MAGHOMA v CAMERON BRANNAGAN

Maghoma’s season deserves a grandstand finish in the capital and for short spells in the semi-final, Barnsley simply didn’t know how to handle him. Filling in the gaps is now the Brentford midfielder’s next challenge as his career matures.

If Sheehan keeps the rhythm and George Thomason a grinding base in Bolton’s midfield, Maghoma often provides the flashier riffs – those little moments that can turn humdrum spells of possession into potent attacks.

Brannagan has been Oxford’s main man for some time now. Not only a master at set pieces and penalties, his experience in front of the back four as a screen against the sort of penetrating runs that Maghoma can produce has also been important. He has 10 assists to his name and will inevitably be at the heart of anything positive the U’s do on the day.

The Bolton News: Randell Williams has come into a rich vein of form for Bolton, Wembley will pit him against Fin Stevens or Sam LongRandell Williams has come into a rich vein of form for Bolton, Wembley will pit him against Fin Stevens or Sam Long (Image: Camerasport)

RANDELL WILLIAMS v FINLEY STEVENS

Williams has hit a timely purple patch for Wanderers following a few months out of the reckoning, and his attacking work in both games against Barnsley was first rate.

Ephron Mason-Clark is a unique challenge at this level of football but it was noticeable that the Peterborough winger caused big problems for Oxford down the same side of the pitch, prompting Stevens to be withdrawn at half time after picking up a yellow card. His replacement, Sam Long, did a very decent job and may get the nod for the final. But in this form Williams will fancy his chances of making life difficult again for either man.

The Bolton News: The two men in the dugout at Wembley showed tactical flexibility in the semi-finalsThe two men in the dugout at Wembley showed tactical flexibility in the semi-finals (Image: Camerasport)

IAN EVATT v DES BUCKINGHAM

Both managers diverted from their normal style of play to get the job done in the play-off semi-finals.

Bolton kept things simple in the first leg at Barnsley, going direct and eschewing their normal tendency to build patiently from the back, especially in the first 20 minutes of the game.

It was to Evatt’s frustration that his side came away from the gameplan in the second half – but hopefully that is a lesson learned if faced with the same situation at Wembley.

Buckingham did a fine job subduing Peterborough’s attacking threats in the first leg and then, like Evatt, had to compromise his own desire to play attacking football by going much more defensive at London Road. Some speculate that the ‘contain and frustrate’ policy might be used against Wanderers, relying on the quick counters of Murphy, Rodrigues and Co for goals.

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