Bolton Wanderers 1 Carlisle United 0: Carlisle United’s play-off hopes might not be as spectacularly dead as the European Super League, but they are now, alas, on life support. A five-point gap with four to play is going to take some bridging, this narrow and in many ways valiant defeat to Bolton ultimately harming their cause.

The Blues ended this game strongly, and for much of the last 20 minutes were camped in the home half. Promotion anxiety suddenly seemed to be infecting Ian Evatt’s side in sight of the victory line.

United won ball, spread it, repeatedly crossed it, sent in corners and throws aplenty, and nobody could have quibbled had they found their way to an equaliser. It would not, though, come, and the strong likelihood now is another season in the fourth tier after this most volatile of campaigns.

The only man with the goalscoring scent across 90 intriguing minutes was, as we might have guessed, Eoin Doyle. He read the rebound when Dapo Afolayan’s 28th-minute shot came back off the post and one of the surest things when it comes to finding the net in the fourth tier gave Bolton the decisive advantage.

Their bid for a League One return continues apace; United’s requires snookers. Chris Beech’s team rode the misfortune of an early injury to Rod McDonald here and a first half when they were at times chasing Bolton shadows to make an eventual emergence into things. Their second-half work was sharp and persistent; they lacked, though, a cutting edge and this happens to be the worst possible time to go three games without scoring.

Carlisle are 11th now and not only need to win pretty much all of what they have left, but also need several others to falter. Can it happen? You wouldn’t bet against anything in football – the last 48 hours have told us that – but the wiser money (if there is any left in the game) will be on their handful of better-placed rivals.

Their cause against Evatt's side did not get off to a trouble-free start bearing in mind one of the men key to their recent clean-sheet run, McDonald, did not make it past the nine-minute mark here. After a routine clearance the centre-half stayed down and, shortly afterwards, gingerly walked off the pitch, Nick Anderton taking his place.

It was a case of immediate readjustment and, though Anderton stepped in well, the game did settle into a sustained period, midway through the half, of Bolton ball-hogging and cutting attacks which gave them repeated opportunities in the final third.

After surviving early Joshua Kayode and Lewis Alessandra chances, the hosts’ passing and movement was neat and adventurous, and United struggled to keep them in check. One overlapping Gethin Jones run deserved better treatment in the six-yard box and when Declan John’s later cross was attacked by Doyle, Anderton cleared off the line.

Bolton were in territorial control, Afolayan a menace on the left, and, from the Blues, who gave the hosts too much room to work their best patterns, there was little to inspire when they earned occasional moments of possibility themselves out wide or centrally. The final moment, the final decision, tended to be lacking and after Lloyd Isgrove saw a shot blocked, Evatt’s side finally led when Afolayan’s attempt spun against the post and Doyle was there to pocket the rebound.

United could not really argue against the scoreline and needed to raise better objections to Bolton’s play. This, though, was initially a struggle. Isgrove, flying in from the right, shot wide before Carlisle at last came up with a couple of better things later in the half, Alessandra making Ricardo Santos Almeida stretch to intercept in front of his own goal, and Anderton seeing a volley deflect wide after better work from Omari Patrick on the right.

Carlisle's shape seemed tighter in this period even though Bolton almost rammed in another when John sent over a cross that Kieran Lee couldn’t quite reach. These high-flying opponents were also noticeably vocal with one another and also with the officials and Carlisle, in the second half, needed to be a bigger noise.

Their volume did rise, but their chance count took time to increase. One Jack Armer break resulted in a cross Kayode couldn’t reach, while ref Martin Coy disagreed with Bolton appeals when Afolayan ran at George Tanner and went down.

Beech sent on Dean Furman for the yellow-carded Joe Riley and the South African's arrival into the midfield disputes brought additional acumen and ball retention that helped Carlisle grow further into the contest. Jon Mellish, with a decent break, saw a low cross easily claimed and the one thing you could say at this point was that Bolton hadn’t killed them, hadn’t finished them, Doyle kept largely quiet by Anderton and Aaron Hayden as encouraging spaces emerged downfield.

United sensed this too and, as they persisted in Bolton’s half, their confidence grew, Evatt's team looking gradually less secure in defence of their lead.

The Blues’ best spell came here, their improved football almost sneaking a leveller through Alessandra at the back post and then when the sliding Kayode just failed to reach Patrick’s driven cross. It was better and more substantial from Carlisle, and Beech sent on Gime Toure in a bid to make it count, United going on to win a series of corners in a bid to force the issue.

It was continued pressure, but still agonisingly lacked a conclusion, Mellish seeing a shot deflect wide, Furman and Callum Guy busy in midfield to keep Carlisle on the ball, Toure twisting and jinking on the left and even Farman galloping forward to contest injury-time set-pieces.

It nearly worked, but it didn’t. Bolton were resolute where it mattered and, however gutsy United may feel their defeat was, that doesn’t make the gap any shorter. It is the numbers that truly count at this point in a campaign and this, in the end, was Bolton’s night; Carlisle, alas, are now clinging on to their hopes.