There were sniggers when Rafael Benitez "guaranteed" Liverpool a top-four finish – perhaps as his parting gift, if reports of Juventus's interest are substantiated – yet the Spaniard's pledge is looking less fanciful now. A comfortable victory over Owen Coyle's Bolton took their points tally to 14 from six games and lifted them to within a point of fourth-placed Tottenham.
Dirk Kuyt's ninth goal of the campaign enabled Liverpool to put an unconvincing opening behind them late in the first half. And an unwitting own goal by Kevin Davies relegated a first League win for Bolton at Anfield since 1954 to the realm of impossibility, with Steven Gerrard coming into his own once Coyle had withdrawn his tiring shadow, Fabrice Muamba.
Was Benitez still guaranteeing a Champions' League place? "Yes. I have to because I'm the manager." But did he believe it? "Yes." He added: "I think we're improving and hopefully we can keep up the momentum. I was pleased with our second-half performance."
The presence of Tom Hicks, one of Liverpool's unpopular American owners, provoked a vociferous protest by around 250 Liverpool supporters afterwards. They would have been neither assuaged nor surprised to hear Benitez suggest that Hicks's presence should not be taken as a sign of imminent transfer dealings.
Despite Liverpool's encouraging results, Bolton exposed some of their shortcomings during a breezy opening. Tamir Cohen was worked into a good position, but a heavy touch and a nudge from Jamie Carragher allowed Pepe Reina to smother. Lee Chung-Yong was the chief thorn in Liverpool's side. Midway through the first half he executed an audacious flick past Martin Skrtel just inside Liverpool's half. The South Korean then embarked on a slalom that swept him past Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Skrtel before rounding Reina. From an awkward angle, his shot was on target but Kyrgiakos cleared off the line.
In the absence of Fernando Torres, David Ngog ploughed a lone furrow up front for Liverpool and showed an adhesive touch if not the sharpest awareness. Once, as Gerrard played an exquisite backheeled pass, Ngog was static, while Kuyt also failed to read a cross by Emiliano Insua.
When Insua again delivered from the left, Liverpool were less wasteful. In a goal that had echoes of John Toshack setting up Kevin Keegan in happier times, Alberto Aquilani leapt at the far post to head the ball down for Kuyt to steer the ball in.
Lee did not appear to acknowledge Bolton's history of failure at Anfield. Another surge deep into Liverpool's half ended with him tumbling under Aquilani's challenge. Referee Steve Bennett detected simulation and flourished a yellow card, even though there was a credible case for a penalty.
Gerrard almost doubled Liverpool's lead after the break. Jussi Jaaskelainen parried his shot from 16 yards, following Albert Riera's cut-back, only for the ball to drop to Ngog. With the goal at his mercy, the Frenchman feebly spooned his shot against the bar.
Ngog did, however, play a part in Liverpool's second goal. As Bolton moved out, having apparently survived a short-corner routine between Gerrard and Riera, he rolled a pass back to Insua. The left-back took aim from 25 yards, but the ball took a huge deflection off Kevin Davies to leave Jaaskelainen wrong-footed.
The Kop's rapture was tinged with relief, and it was left to Coyle to put the afternoon in perspective. "We had some good opportunities in the first half but never took them," the former Burnley manager said. "It was a terrible second goal. Wherever that shot was going, it wasn't the net."
Referee: S Bennett
Man of the match: Mascherano
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content