When Aston Villa stretched their unbeaten start in the Premiership into the autumn, Martin O'Neill would peer witheringly over his glasses, wave a dismissive hand and scorn attempts to lure him into claiming that his new charges were on course for the Champions' League. Sam Allardyce, his Bolton Wanderers counterpart, has no such qualms.
As the campaign approaches its halfway mark, the top four positions are occupied by this season's entrants into Europe's premier club competition. Bolton, however, lead the next tier, and Allardyce, having seen Jussi Jaaskelainen's agility and Gary Speed's accuracy secure an undeserved win, felt emboldened to bite on the question O'Neill shrugged off.
"There is an opportunity if we want to take it," the Bolton manager said, hesititating only to chuckle, presumably at the possibility of Horwich joining Milan, Madrid and Moscow on the Champions' League itinerary.
"Our recent run had been very poor and we had lost the killer instinct, but we've got it back now," he added.
"Even if we had drawn a few more games we'd have been comfortable in third place. It is not beyond us now to try to compete for a top-four spot for two reasons. Firstly, though we don't have a big squad, the players we have are talented, so we've got a chance if we keep them fit.
"Secondly, all the other teams up there are playing in the Champions' League or the Uefa Cup, and we're not. That gives us a little more respite in terms of the number of matches we have to compete in. Those two factors may give us an opportunity to sustain things."
O'Neill and Allardyce were, of course, contenders for the England manager's job. If this contest was not of a calibre to make the neutral rue the choice of Steve McClaren, nor did Villa's performance, or even a result that left them without a win in six games, undermine the impression that their gain may well have been the Football Association's loss.
True, if they are to have a chance of exploiting stumbles by Arsenal or Liverpool, O'Neill probably needs to buy a creative midfielder, a dominant centre-back and two strikers, one more mobile than Chris Sutton and another less inclined to find blind alleys than Milan Baros.
A daunting "holiday" schedule, which pits them against Manchester United and Chelsea, may even leave them closer to the bottom than the top. Yet despite this setback, Speed marking his 501st Premiership appearance by beating the hitherto-unemployed Gabor Kiraly from the spot after Stiliyan Petrov's innocuous foul on Nicolas Anelka, one senses that Villa's long-term prospects remain brighter than Bolton's.
O'Neill acknowledged the need to dip into Randy Lerner's coffers, admitting it would be "foolish to ignore" the transfer window. "The fact is that we haven't got a strong enough squad," he said. "While some of the younger players in our team are showing a great willingness and ability, we do need strengthening for every reason under the sun."
The Northern Irishman refused to criticise Bolton's robust, direct style, though his choice of the word "galling" to sum up Villa's defeat said it all. They carved out a dozen scoring opportunities against one by Bolton, only for Jaaskelainen to tip over Gary Cahill's ferocious drive and parry Craig Gardner's point-blank effort during a one-sided second half.
"I don't know who's better than Jussi - his consistency is worth maybe nine to 12 extra points a year," said Allardyce, adding that there was "no doubt" he was as good as Petr Cech.
Asked whether he had had to fight to keep the unsung Finn, his reply offered an insight into Bolton's success in moulding disparate talents and nationalities into a cohesive unit.
"Not really. But we try to keep our players as happy as we possibly can, and to have a place where they love to come and work. Sometimes, when you can't pay more than the others, that can go a long way."
Goal: Speed (75 pen) 0-1.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Kiraly; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Barry; Agbonlahor, McCann (C Gardner, h-t), Petrov, Davis; Baros (Angel, 71), Sutton. Substitutes not used: Olejnik (gk), Bouma, Hughes.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Meite (Ben Haim, 68), Faye, Pedersen; Campo; Davies, Nolan, Speed, Stelios (Tal, 29; R Gardner, 57); Anelka. Substitutes not used: Al-Habsi (gk), Vaz Te.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Co Durham).
Booked: Bolton Faye, Davies, Pedersen, Campo.
Man of the match: Jaaaskelainen.
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