NEILL Collins says hosts Bolton Wanderers are ‘probably favourites’ for the League One title and will want to ‘put one over on’ Barnsley who beat them in last season’s play-offs.

The Reds are fifth, three points clear in the top six, after their 11-game unbeaten run ended with a 2-1 home loss to Exeter City on Saturday.

Bolton are five points ahead of Barnsley – despite playing a game fewer – and in the second of two automatic promotion places, three points off leaders Portsmouth who have played three more games.

Ian Evatt’s side have won six of their last seven games including a 4-1 success at second-bottom Carlisle United on Saturday.

Head coach Collins told the Chronicle: “I think they are possibly favourites, given their games in hand and their consistency.

“You can’t rule out Peterborough, Portsmouth and Derby but I do think Bolton are in a good position.

“They want to challenge for the top places.

“It’s a great challenge for us to show that’s what we want to do as well.”

Michael Duff’s Barnsley beat Bolton 2-1 over two legs in the play-off semi-final in May.

Collins said: “I watched it at the time but not this week.

“Bolton have adapted and changed. I’ve watched their recent games.

“We’re a very different side, especially in the back three. Both teams have changed dynamics.

“They will be extremely keen to put one over on us because of that.”

Bolton have the best defensive record in the division with just 26 goals conceded in 27 games – and only two in the last six league matches.

But two of their regular back three, Ricardo Santos and Eoin Toal, picked up injuries on Tuesday as they lost at Blackpool in the EFL Trophy.

Both are doubts to face the Reds and, with former Barnsley player Gethin Jones with Australia at the Asian Cup and other defenders injured, Bolton signed Caleb Taylor on loan from West Brom yesterday.

On Santos and Toal, Collins said: “We will wait and see.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were both precautionary.

“But they have been adding through the window so they will be strong no matter what.”

Bolton boss Evatt – who was mainly a third and second tier centre-back in the same era as Neill Collins – is the longest-serving League One manager and in the top ten in English professional football, having taken over in 2020 when they were in League Two.

Collins said: “I played against him a lot. We marked each other at corners.

“He had a great career as a player and he’s done really well as a manager.

“He has been able to put his stamp on Bolton. He’s had that continuity and consistency we all want. He wants to take the next step this season like we do.

“It’s a great test and I am looking forward to it.”

He added: “They have a distinct way of playing, and players that are suited to that. Over a period of time they have refined it and got players in who help them solve problems.

“They keep the ball, make the pitch big, they have goals, pace out wide, midfield legs.

“They are very good.

“But anyone can beat anyone. Bolton have been on the wrong end of a couple of tough home games like any team.”

The two clubs will play each other twice in 31 days with Bolton visiting Oakwell on March 5 after cancelling the initial fixture in October due to international call-ups.

Collins said: “It is unusual but they will be two good games. The home game is one to look forward to.”

Bolton’s average attendance this season has been almost 21,000 – second only to Derby County in League One.

Is Collins looking for a reaction from Exeter?

“We got the reaction in the second half. The first half was away below our standards.

“If we hadn’t made the errors we would have come through and won the game.

“It’s a different game on Saturday and I expect us to go there with the mentality that we have shown more often than not.”