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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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How not to shop

He is the shopaholic with a season ticket for Poundstretcher who, having been granted a platinum card for Harrods, has found himself unable to spend.

Alright, so it is an exaggeration but, nonetheless, it is an unusual situation for Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce to find himself in.

More than two months have elapsed since he matched Everton's £8.6 million bid for Andrew Johnson and so far Allardyce's only outlay has been the £1 million purchase of defender Abdoulaye Meite from Marseille.

But a blank chequebook has brought unusual caution. Bolton, usually among the busiest in the transfer market, have been comparatively quiet, their pride perhaps dented by Dietmar Hamann's volte-face as well as by Johnson's predilection for Goodison Park.

Allardyce's attempt to find a silver lining in a cloudy summer - that he made a profit on the midfielder, who never played for Bolton before signing for Manchester City - smacked more of fools' gold.

After all, this was the close-season that was supposed to herald the end of an era.

The release of five players, a list headed by stalwarts Jay-Jay Okocha and Bruno N'Gotty was intended to pave the way for a younger core; though the physical labour demanded at the Reebok made Bolton an unlikely retirement home for footballing veterans.

The signing of Johnson would have marked Bolton's arrival among the Premiership's big spenders and, at the same time, would have allowed Allardyce to discard his much-imitated, but never quite emulated, 4-5-1 formation, and perhaps a widespread reappraisal of his methods.

As Tottenham discovered on Saturday, even accomplished Premiership sides can struggle to deal with Bolton's game-plan, especially at the Reebok. Nevertheless the feeling persists that Allardyce was ready to change it to incorporate a recognised goal-scorer.

As Jared Borgetti discovered, goal-scoring does not rank at the top of Allardyce's list of requirements for a centre-forward. The Mexican, who has just joined Saudi outfit Al-Ittihad, is a superior finisher to Kevin Davies, but found himself consigned to the Bolton bench.

The muscle and menace of Bolton's solitary striker enabled the club to boast a stronger spine.

Davies rated highly for nuisance value for opponents and referees alike; Both the most fouled player in the Premiership last year and the individual guilty of most offences, he provided a redoubtable presence in attack, if not in the scoring charts.

In bidding for Johnson, however, Allardyce surely did not expect a shorter and speedier striker to replicate Davies' role.

In other words, it was an admission that 4-5-1 had taken Bolton as far as it could, a recognition that it was not sustainable in the long-term to rely on midfielders and wingers such as Kevin Nolan and Stelios Giannakopoulos to top-score for a team with ambitions for annual top-six finishes.

Yet, though Ricardo Vaz Te remains in reserve, no second striker has been procured. Without the sheen provided them by European football Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Diego Tristan have proved elusive.

However, despite lacking any obvious prestige Bolton appear to be on the verge of signing Nicolas Anelka, with Allardyce claiming he can tame the notorious enfant terrible.

Other attempts to augment the free transfers and cut-price arrivals with blue-chip recruits have come to naught; Juan Pablo Sorin, the captain of Argentina, remains at Villarreal, despite Allardyce's interest.

But, with Borgetti's departure, Bolton started the season with fewer strikers; attack, in this instance, serves as a microcosm for the team.

Shorn of Okocha and Hidetoshi Nakata, the centre of midfield takes on a defensive look; personnel dictates it must. Even Meite's signing is offset by the sale of central defender Rahdi Jaidi to join N'Gotty at Birmingham.

The sole exception is the position Allardyce appears to regard with most affection, that of the anchor midfielder. Even Okocha's invention was deployed there last season. Despite Hamann's rapid rejection, Allardyce has five options; Ivan Campo, Gary Speed, Abdoulaye Faye and Joey O'Brien are joined by summer addition Quinton Fortune.

The first three are proof that few can manipulate lesser budgets as well as Allardyce, combining value for money with eye-catching signings. The succession of coups, in luring the renowned to the Reebok, suggested man-management was a strength.

But has the delicacy that belied Allardyce's bulky frame to handle the egos of the superannuated - not to mention the diplomacy to lure them to Bolton in the first place - deserted him?

Perhaps believing his own publicity about the merits of straight talking, Hamann was apparently subjected to a lecture along the lines of 'my way or the highway'. The German, as befits a World Cup finalist and Champions League winner whose achievements outnumber Allardyce's, took the latter option and headed down the M61 to Manchester City.

There is something paradoxical about Allardyce. Despite the thoroughly modern methods from the much-discussed backroom staff at the Reebok, the sense prevails that his individual style is best suited to the 1970s, when managers cultivated a reputation for being larger than life and favoured a flamboyant dress style.

It has suited Bolton, too, to project the image of 'Big Sam', a term used so frequently it will soon be trademarked; posters were prominent with the manager, like a 21st-century Lord Kitchener, exhorting the locals to support Wanderers.

Whether the cult of personality became excessive, whether Allardyce's ego has impinged upon the team is a moot point. He has become ever more vocal about his own attributes, particularly when a candidate for the England job.

But, in the revenge of the mild-mannered, the FA appointed Steve McClaren, Newcastle opted for Glenn Roeder and Middlesbrough went for the untested Gareth Southgate.

A proud patriotism and a keen sense of self-promotion contributed to Allardyce's high-profile campaign to succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson, but it was probably conducted in the belief that there would be a consolation prize if he failed.

Instead, the only option in the north east has been Sunderland and, while Allardyce appears to have spent much of the summer sipping champagne, he can recognise a poisoned chalice when it is offered.

Yet a feeling of restlessness remains. In years to come, Johnson's preference for Everton may be rued in Bolton if it proves to be the decision that persuaded Allardyce that his shopping, whether in the luxury goods market or the bargain basement, should be done elsewhere.

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