Reduced to forcing square pegs into round holes because there is currently such a shortage of round pegs at Anfield, Liverpool looked out of shape and out of sorts for much of yesterday afternoon. They nevertheless finally found a precious, unwarranted goal in the last few minutes, headed by Igor Biscan, to pull away from Bolton in the top six and move to within a point of Everton, whom they had beaten in the Mersey derby last time out. With the best goal difference of the three contenders they are well placed to steal the fourth Champions' League place from their neighbours, who now need a victory at West Bromwich today.
The shortage of strikers was felt particularly hard, all the more so since Fernando Morientes was not fit enough to play more than the last quarter of an hour. Imagine then Rafael Benitez's annoyance with Milan Baros, suspended yesterday after his reckless tackle in the derby, but available for the emotional visit of Juventus on Tuesday. Sticking Luis Garcia up front, supported by Steven Gerrard, never looked like unhinging a solid Bolton defence, guarded immaculately by the veteran Spaniard Fernando Hierro, and although Liverpool eventually threw on three attacking substitutes, the visitors had appeared likely to take the point they deserved.
Bolton are threatening to divide opinion in the manner of 1980s Wimbledon, to whom they so violently object to being compared. Are they another over-physical long-ball team, or a breath of fresh air blowing through the stale old corridors of Premiership power? Liverpool's mild-mannered manager had employed irony and sarcasm in describing his side's 1-0 defeat at the Reebok in late-August and the "different rules" that he claimed operate there: foul throws, obstruction of the goalkeeper, intimidation of defenders and so on.
Like the old south London Crazy Gang, Bolton merely draw further strength from such barbs, which Jose Mourinho and Newcastle's Graeme Souness have also aimed this season. Their manager, Sam Allardyce, proclaimed yesterday: "Steve Bennett [the referee] must have read it because he gave 19 fouls against us and five for us, which wasn't a fair reflection. But it's music to my ears and shows I'm probably becoming a better manager than they are."
He added that his team "should have had the game over and done with in the first 10 minutes", which was only a minor exaggeration. Scott Carson, the England Under-21 goalkeeper forced to make his home debut because of Jerzy Dudek's niggling injury, came under physical pressure from the start in attempting to repel a clutch of corners aimed at all the white shirts in the penalty area. He missed the first of them, which Ricardo Gardner headed wide, and punched the second unconvincingly as Benitez appealed for a foul. When another one was not cleared, Stelios Giannakopoulos hit a fierce volley that Steve Finnan did well to head off the line.
Even once Liverpool began to sort themselves out, chances were thin on the ground. An indirect free-kick inside the penalty area offered one, John Arne Riise's shot being charged down; Garcia shot carelessly across the face of goal and Jussi Jaaskelainen's only save before the interval was from a low strike by Gerrard.
An identical block was required of the goalkeeper early in the second half as Antonio Nunez met Riise's cross with a smart volley towards the near post. The Spaniard was enjoying greater space as Gardner adjusted to the left-back position, Bolton having been forced to take off the hobbling right-back Nicky Hunt; Jay-Jay Okocha replaced him, which added even more power to their armoury of long throws.
Despite the slight improvement to Liverpool's fluidity, Benitez soon amended his formation. Riise was withdrawn, to the crowd's displeasure, Anthony Le Tallec rather than Morientes coming on to play up the middle with Garcia pushing wider. Vladimir Smicer for John Welsh, who had found the game passing him by in midfield, was the next change, Gerrard dropping deeper, though the shape of the two teams remained essentially the same, with three attacking midfielders strung across the pitch behind a main striker. Bolton continued to look at least as comfortable with it as the home side and Henrik Pedersen's arrival as substitute added another positive option.
They might have scored in the 77th minute, Okocha drifting square before hitting a 30-yard drive that Carson had to nudge round the post for a corner that Kevin Davies met with a looping header, Finnan clearing off the line for the second time. Morientes made an appearance at last but had hardly touched the ball before it was in Bolton's net. In one of the few fluent moves Liverpool had managed, Garcia's clever pass for Le Tallec led to Gardner almost diverting the ball into his own goal. Following the subsequent corner, Djimi Traoré crossed and Biscan leapt highest to head in his first goal at Anfield. It could be worth an awful lot of money by the end of the season.
"Bolton played as they normally do, a physical game," Benitez said dismissively. He will hope to field a stronger side on Tuesday but acknowledges that Juventus have gained an advantage by having their weekend game postponed. As for the Premiership chase: "Everton are under pressure." Which is where the red half of Merseyside like them to be.
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