When it was put to Sam Allardyce that Bolton Wanderers began a game against Liverpool as favourites, his response was to question the enquirer's grip on reality. "We're in fantasy land," were his exact words.
Not for the first time this season, Bolton Wanderers' manager proved right, but only just. His team, put together by wheeling and dealing that would stretch the belief even of Arthur Daley, took the multi-million Liverpool side to the limit yesterday but could not quite defeat them. Even then it required a spectacular save from Jerzy Dudek in injury time to deny Kevin Davies.
Nicky Hunt's first ever goal and Youri Djorkaeff's umpteenth twice put Bolton ahead but Liverpool, who squandered enough chances to win two matches, equalised on each occasion, through Sami Hyypia and Steven Gerrard. Nevertheless, the draw did nothing for the visitors Champions' League aspirations.
That makes it three points from their last four matches and with Newcastle winning yesterday, their chance of getting the fourth ticket to next season's European jamboree is dwindling. "We were happy with the performance," Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, said, "but disappointed with the result." Plus ça change, he might have added.
Meanwhile Bolton, through to the Carling Cup final and in the top half of the Premiership, are thoroughly enjoying the strangeness of being in such elevated company. "We caught Liverpool at full pelt," Allardyce said, "and we managed to live with them. It was a magnificent performance from us and a well deserved draw." Bolton's self-belief was reinforced after 11 minutes when they took the lead through a source that probably surprised even them.
Bruno N'Gotty's free-kick was headed away by Stéphane Henchoz to Hunt, whom Liverpool had every reason to believe had the normal left foot of a young right-back. Wrong. With a swing of his normal standing leg he volleyed past the startled Dudek.
Hunt is possibly the best newcomer to the Premiership this season and he enhanced his reputation further with a charge down the right and a blur of one-twos after 23 minutes that was halted only by the sharp reflexes of Dudek.
Liverpool could barely have been worse in the opening quarter but they stirred after 26 minutes when Gerrard delivered the sort of through ball midfielders fantasise about. Harry Kewell was the beneficiary and he evaded the charge of Jussi Jaaskelainen, but his momentum took him wide.
Anthony Le Tallec brought the first half to a close by volleying over from 10 yards but that proved an indicator ofwhat would happen at the start of the second because Liverpool showed a marked improvement at the restart and equalised after 51 minutes.
Djorkaeff was aggrieved when he was penalised for tripping Bruno Cheyrou and the Frenchman's irritation was compounded when Gerrard delivered a teasing cross from the free-kick. There are few more stirring sights in the Premiership than Hyypia rising in pursuit of a goal and the Finn crashed his header past Jaaskelainen off the bar.
Djorkaeff's chance for retribution came seven minutes later when he profited from Liverpool's dithering and volleyed in Davies's overhead pass, but Gerrard did not deserve to finish on a losing side and he ensured he did not by getting Liverpool's second after 69 minutes. N'Gotty was turned by Florent Sinama-Pongolle and then Le Tallec passed for Gerrard to volley in at the far post.
The match continued to see-saw but the best chance to clinch a victory came after 80 minutes when Gerrard galloped down the left and crossed invitingly for Owen. The England striker stretched and tripped, missing from almost impossibly close range. That is nine games without a goal for Owen. We truly are in fantasy land.
Bolton Wanderers 2
Hunt 11, Djorkaeff 58
Hyypia 51, Gerrard 69
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 27,552Reuse content