By Dan Harrison
Villa wondered how they left the Reebok Stadium empty handed after Ivan Klasnic's late goal turned an astonishing clash in Bolton's favour.
There is no doubt that Gerard Houllier saw the "fresh and hungry" team he had called for ahead of this game, but the manager will have been baffled by a result which was a severe travesty of justice.
The visitors dominated and would have certainly departed with three points had Jussi Jaaskelainen not saved Ashley Young's 70th minute penalty, which could have increased Villa's lead to 3-1.
And to compound the frustrations of the claret and blues, it was a familiar face - former defender Gary Cahill - who brought Bolton back into the contest by cancelling out strikes from Darren Bent and Marc Albrighton.
On another day, Bent could have been celebrating a first-half hat-trick.
The industry of Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton to win back possession presented the record signing with a clear opportunity on just four minutes.
The former Sunderland striker did well to stay on side and control Young's incisive pass but was guilty of taking a touch too many when looking to manoeuvre round Jasskelainen.
He soon atoned for that miss although Bent will be happy to let team-mate Kyle Walker take most of the credit for his 16th minute strike.
The on-loan Tottenham full-back embarked on an unstoppable mazy run from just inside Bolton's half and, after leaving Paul Robinson trailing, his inch-perfect cross to the back post gave Bent the simplest of tap-ins.
It almost got even better for Houllier's team, who continued to exploit the acres of space afforded to them on the right hand side.
This time it was Albrighton who picked out Bent with a perfect cross, only for the forward's header to ricochet off Cahill and on to the upright.
If that was tough to take, Cahill's stoppage time equaliser came as even more of a sickening blow.
Aside from Daniel Sturridge's miscued header, Bolton rarely threatened in the first period, with makeshift centre-back Luke Young heroically heading and blocking everything in his vicinity.
But there was little he could do to stop Cahill rising at the near post to head home Martin Petrov's corner.
The force was still with Villa after the break and it seemed only a matter of time before they retook the lead.
Bent had an angled left-foot shot saved by Jaaskelainen before Stewart Downing volleyed inches past the far post after meeting Albrighton's sumptuous floating right-wing delivery.
And Downing's clever knockback in to Bent's path presented the striker with another chance which David Wheater blocked inside the six-yard box.
When Villa's second finally arrived on 65 minutes, it was started by a majestic flick by Fabian Delph. The neatest of back-heels from the midfielder sent Downing clear down the right.
The winger crossed and Albrighton timed his arrival at the back post perfectly to guide his volley past Jaaskelainen.
The Bolton keeper soon became the hero of the hour. This time Ashley Young make a menacing run in-field from the right, which was halted by Wheater's clumsy challenge.
Young boasted a record of scoring in each of his last five games against Bolton but Jaaskelainen made sure that sequence would not be extended with a fine two-handed penalty save.
It was a miss which proved costly. Six minutes later, Cahill met Stuart Holden's outswinging corner, Friedel pushed away his initial header but Cahill converted the rebound on the volley.
Three minutes from time, sub Klasnic struck the cruellest of blows, hitting a rasping shot into the bottom corner after Wheater headed down Sturridge's cross from deep.
BOLTON: Jaakelainen, Steinsson, Robinson, Cahill, Muamba, Holden, Elmander, Petrov, Davies, Sturridge, Wheater. Subs: Bogdan, Taylor, Davies (for Muamba, 60), Klasnic (for Elmander, 67), Rodrigo, Alonso, Lee (for Petrov, 60).
VILLA: Friedel, Walker, L Young, Clark, Baker, Albrighton, Downing, Delph, Reo-Coker, A Young, Bent. Subs: Pires, Marshall, Bradley, Agbonlahor (for Albrighton, 84), Heskey, Petrov (for Delph, 77), Herd.