Bolton Wanderers 2 Liverpool 0: Bolton prosper from Reina 'handball'

Allardyce's men outmuscle luckless Liverpool whose title dreams are steadily slipping away
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The Independent Football

We are only just into October and Liverpool's chances of winning the Premiership this season appear to be disappearing. That is the best light you can shed; the worst would be that their title quest is already over.

This was their third defeat in their first seven games and as Chelsea incur domestic losses about as often as Jose Mourinho admits making a mistake, the prospect of their making a proper challenge seems remote. So much for the optimism that oozed out of Anfield only a matter of weeks ago.

The failing is a familiar one. Rafael Benitez has been beleaguered by poor away form in the League ever since he arrived at Liverpool and this defeat, incurred thanks to goals by Gary Speed and Ivan Campo, means they have taken only one of 12 points on their travels this season. It may be Fortress Anfield, but elsewhere their battlements are flimsy.

To give them their due yesterday, very little went their way. A mistake by the referee's assistant led to Bolton Wanderers' first goal and Xabi Alonso hit a post. Yet there was little of the verve or the unrelenting determination to succeed that you expect to see in champions elect and by the end they looked clueless. More surprisingly, there was little indication of their much vaunted never-say-die attitude.

Perhaps that had something to do with Benitez's pre-match comments in which he asked for the officials to be strong to curb Bolton's physical approach. "We pinned those comments on the wall," Sam Allardyce, the Bolton manager, said. "It helped the players give that extra bit.

"It was a terrific result based on getting the basics right and keeping our game plan intact. Today we minimised their attacking potential and then got the goals at the right time. The second completely knocked the stuffing out of Liverpool and after that we just rolled with the attacks."

Liverpool were left reeling within half-an-hour thanks to a bad decision. Jose Reina was in the area when he tossed the ball up to kick clear but the linesman, Andy Halliday, ruled he had handled the ball outside the box. The visitors looked mystified, the Liverpool manager, who had access to a pitch-side television monitor, furious, but the injustice was compounded. Campo tapped the ball to his left and Speed thumped his free-kick low past the defensive wall and just inside the post.

"The incident changed the game," Benitez said. "We were playing well and in control. It was clear that Reina threw the ball in the air before he went out of the area, but the linesman was in a bad position." It was difficult to dispute Benitez's assertion. The game began at a frantic pace but Liverpool, who started with Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt as strikers, imposed a calm command and after 21 minutes hit an upright.

Bellamy crossed from the left, Tal Ben Haim cleared with his head and Alonso crashed his volley against the post. Even after Bolton's goal there was reason to believe that Liverpool could recover and the first half finished with them on the charge. Steve Finnan crossed from the right, Bellamy knocked the ball down and Steven Gerrard thumped a volley that swerved and almost caught Jussi Jaaskelainen going the wrong way.

At half-time, Allardyce stressed the need for defending in depth and making isolated raids. He could not have been happier with the way his players listened because they followed his instructions to the letter, getting a second goal within six minutes of the restart.

Kevin Davies contrived space on the right and then delivered a cross that he would have loved to have received himself. Campo arrived late, Finnan was guilty of ball-watching and the Spaniard thumped his header against the bar and over the line. Again a linesman's decision was required and this time it was the right one: the ball was at least a foot over the line.

With that the game was over and so could be Liverpool's challenge. "If we win our next two games, you might be asking different questions," Benitez said when he was asked the obvious. Lose both of them and he will definitely be right.

Bolton, with two wins since the club were thrown under a dark cloud created by the Panorama allegations, are asking questions too - of teams at the top. " It's a great finish to what has been a very good week for everyone at the club," Allardyce said. "It's a fantastic result and a very big scalp."