Bolton can halt a record Rush

Coca-Cola Cup final: Rioch's master plan may prove the undoing of Liverpool at Wembley today. Ian Ridley reports
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The Independent Online
FOR one team it marks the end of the beginning, for the other it could be the beginning of the end. Today's Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley between Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers is a confrontation between a club seeking to confirm its renaissance with a trophy and another at the crossroads of achievement.

A return to the traditional Anfield virtues by the Liverpool manager Roy Evans has served the club well in the aftermath of Graeme Souness, whose new broom came with bristles the boot and board rooms found too spiky. Now, though still perhaps two players short of challenging for the Premiership title, Liverpool have taken their place again with the cream, of which they were once the cream.

Promotion to the Premiership, rather than a slot in its upper tier, is the Bolton Wanderers priority this season, with today's match offering either inflation for the lungs in the final straight or deflation to the spirits. On the outcome of that rests the issue of whether this promising team under a sophisticated manager in Bruce Rioch goes on together or goes its separate ways.

Rioch's odds to become Arsenal's new manager were cut from 10-1 to 2- 1 favourite last week, which suggests someone has good information. It would no doubt appeal to a man whose contract expires in the summer and whose family home remains in Hertfordshire.

His prize assets, the defender Alan Stubbs and the midfield player Jason McAteer, may also be tempted to further themselves elsewhere. Bolton have done well to hold on to them so far but may not do so for much longer. An irony is that they could be playing for Liverpool today, Bolton having turned down £6m for the pair in pre-season.

But enough of worst-case scenarios. Today affords the opportunity while it lasts to enjoy what many judges consider the best team outside the Premiership. It is fitting that the Football League are represented in the final of their own competition by a team who can show that there is defiant life in the old body yet, a club whose name evokes its heyday.

"Bolton are a mixture of the direct and good football with early passing," says the Luton Town manager David Pleat. "They would rather play further forward than defend."

After the nearly-but-not-quite stewardship of Phil Neal, Rioch has grafted on astutely to a strong spine of the composed Stubbs, the busy McAteer and the lively John McGinlay, a late flowerer who has won his first cap for Scotland at the age of 30. Richard Sneekes adds Dutch technique in midfield, Mixu Paatelainen some Finnish finishing and bustle up front.

"I think if you look round the team we have got good quality everywhere and that's why we are doing so well," Stubbs says. "We have also got good players in reserve who can come in and do a job. We have played together for a long time and we are strong both mentally and physically this year. And if the forwards have not been scoring, the midfield and wingers have."

Pleat adds: "It will be a big test for Stubbs and how he reacts to the movement of Liverpool's front players. Up front they may be restricted in their chances but McGinlay is a strong finisher. Sneekes also has a terrific shot and McAteer surges through well from midfield."

Much hinges on the choice of wide players. Rioch may wish to include on the right the out-and-out winger David Lee, who can produce moments of both inspiration and frustration - more of the former in the 2-0 win at Anfield in the FA Cup two years ago - but caution may preclude a place in the starting line-up.

Should Liverpool begin with the attacking threat of Mark Walters on their left rather than the defensive instincts of Stig-Inge Bjornebye, Bolton may feel that Neil McDonald or the terrier Mark Patterson is better suited, though Pleat believes that Lee would give Bjornebye a torrid afternoon. It may be too much to hope that four wingers are deployed, with Steve McManaman and Alan Thompson on the other touchline.

Rioch is an enlightened thinker. Last week he explained his philosophy by referring to draughts games against his father. "He'd allow you to advance while he was planning moves ahead. He'd give you a draught and you'd take it, and then he'd look at the board and take maybe four or five and be in for the kill. That's the equivalent of planning passes, drawing the opposition on to you and making the killer pass that ends with the ball in the net. That's how I like football to be."

He has, he adds, learnt from his own playing experience of the game in the often negative, physically excessive Seventies and has changed his outlook. "They say I should teach Sneekes to tackle. Isn't it enough for them that he's bursting the net from 30 yards?" says the man whose own shot was one of the most powerful in the game. "They say Alan Stubbs takes the odd chance at the back, which to me is a little like remembering Bobby Moore for the goal he gave away in Poland. Do you dwell on the one error in 100 or do you praise the brilliance of the 99 times the ball is brought down and stroked around? We go for the latter."

There is an assumption, based on the fact that Liverpool used to win the competition as a warm-up for the championship - four times in succession at the beginning of the Eighties - that the Premiership side have the greater know-how.

But, as Roy Evans points out, "Our players haven't really got that much Wembley experience, certainly not in terms of finals. It will be good for us to have Ian Rush and John Barnes out there." In addition, thanks to that 2-0 win and a 4-1 pre-season success, Bolton should not feel inferior. They have also beaten Ipswich, West Ham and Norwich City on the way to the final.

Rush's presence represents a symbol of transition for Liverpool. Formerly central to all the silverware of the golden era, now he is entrusted with nurturing the burgeoning talents of Jamie Redknapp, McManaman and Robbie Fowler, many of whose 28 goals are owed to his mentor.

The Welshman, scorer of 15 goals himself this season, has been suffering from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss his country's match in Bulgaria in midweek but is expected to be fit for what may well be his Wembley swansong with Liverpool. Evans has made overtures about a new striker, bidding for Stan Collymore, to get on the end of left-wing crosses from the £2m new boy Mark Kennedy, who is ineligible today.

The 33-year-old Rush will equal Kenny Dalglish's record of six League Cup final appearances and, should Liverpool win, would become the first player to collect five winners' medals. A hunch, given that Bolton are the side closer to their peak, suggests that he will fail, however, and remain two short of Geoff Hurst's 49 goals in the competition. Bolton are also a cut above Liverpool's last lower division Wembley opposition - Sunderland, whom they beat 2-0 to win the 1992 FA Cup.

Del Boy and Rodney are no longer the only Trotters of note. Bolton to win by a goal.