Humdrum spell beyond the magic of Okocha

Bolton Wanderers 0 Southampton 0
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The Independent Football

Gordon Strachan, the Southampton manager, stopped his players having a day off last week, so disappointed was he with their performance against Manchester City. Yesterday it was the turn of the 25,619 crowd at the Reebok to rue a lost afternoon of leave.

The goals were a long time coming in the corresponding fixture last season - one apiece in the last eight minutes - but at least they arrived. Yesterday there was little chance of respite and the one talking point was not a piece of brilliance but the sending off of Southampton's Michael Svensson with five minutes to go.

There had been little about the game for anyone to get worked up about, but as Southampton prepared to defend a free-kick first the Swede and then Mario Jardel ended up on the floor. After consulting his linesman, the referee booked the Bolton striker and, as Svensson had already been cautioned, he received a red card.

Strachan would not defend his player, who he acknowledged had raised his hands, but he said Jardel had gone to ground too easily. "He's a big guy, 15 stone, and to fall like that," he said with some incredulity. "It wasn't even a real push. It was embarrassing."

At least Svensson will have reason to remember his visit to Bolton; the rest of the crowd will be happy to forget a game that settled into the humdrum from the opening minutes and never really threatened to rise. Strachan described it as "bleak, dour, boring and scrappy" which over-rated it. In matches like this even queuing for Christmas shopping takes on an unexpected attraction.

Jay-Jay Okocha tried his utmost to drag the game out of the dire but even the Nigerian could not compensate for the deficiencies of those around him and it was not a surprise to learn that this was the fifth successive draw between the teams. Bolton came with rave notices from their performance against Tottenham but their failing is a familiar one: an inability to score. Southampton had only two chances all game.

For most of the afternoon Bolton were shooting from hit-and-hope range, an exercise in over-optimism if ever there was one against Antti Niemi, one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership. Twice the Finn denied Okocha with brilliant dives to flick the ball from the top corner but for the other Bolton efforts they might as well have saved their energy.

The excitement, such as it was, was confined to a four-minute spell in the second half. Niemi defied gravity to deny Okocha after 54 minutes and the hitherto anonymous Kevin Phillips had a shot blocked by Jaaskelainen a minute later after Telfer's quick free-kick had earned him space in the right of the area.

Phillips should have scored after 56 minutes when Rory Delap's header looped over the Bolton goalkeeper and the former Sunderland striker needed merely a touch to force the ball over the line. Bolton, meanwhile, finally got the ball in the net after 57 minutes when Nolan's clever cut back came to nothing thanks to Per Frandsen's mis-kick and Stelios Giannakopoulos drifting offside.

That action apart, the one occasion a team looked likely to score was when Okocha beat two players and served Jardel with the expertise of a first class waiter. The Brazilian delayed, bent the ball with the outside of his right foot and then somehow put it over. "We put Mario into the hero's position but unfortunately he did not make himself one," was Bolton manager Sam Allardyce's comment.

Strachan was another to find little heroism in the striker. "A big Jessie," was his description.

Bolton Wanderers 0 Southampton 0

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 25,619

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