What price Robbie Keane now for the Anfield exit in the new year sales? Inspired and typically impish, the Republic of Ireland skipper yesterday plundered two of the goals with which Liverpool cemented their hold on the Premier League top spot.
Here was a contribution to suggest that stories about the player's January departure might be exaggerated, or overtaken by events. The £20.3m summer signing's personal landscape is rapidly changing. He has now scored three times in two games and the crowd's prolonged acclaim for his highly accomplished finishes in the space of five minutes soon after half-time were borne out of more than just relief that his side had emerged from their debilitating three successive home league draws.
The Kop are waiting to take him to their hearts and more of this will not do any harm. Seven goals in 25 appearances is still not a haul to die for but, compared with the four in 23 he had managed a week ago, it is positively bountiful. We will not have to wait long to discover whether his impetus can be carried over, or is allowed to.
Liverpool travel north and kick off at the inconveniently early hour of noon against Newcastle United tomorrow – and were delighted to wrap this game up early enough for Steven Gerrard, Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt to be given time off towards the end.
As if pole position at the half-way stage is not exciting enough for a club obsessed with winning their first Premier League title, there is also the prospect of Fernando Torres' impending return. Despite the pre-match conjecture, the only highly influential Spaniard Anfield was able to welcome back yesterday was Rafa Benitez. His continued recovery from kidney stones meant the manager stayed throughout in the directors' box in note-taking mode, leaving Sammy Lee to direct operations against his former club – and to later deny Keane had ever been in crisis. "We don't feel Robbie has ever been out of form," the assistant manager said. "He has been working very hard and we know the quality he has. That's why we brought him here. We have had no doubts whatsoever in his ability and work-rate. What he adds to the club is immense.
"I don't think he was ever lacking in confidence. People may make assertions but we know what he is adding." If doctor's orders saw to it that Benitez did not make it down to pitch-side, manager's orders dictated that Liverpool went for the rarity of a 4-4-2 formation, with Gerrard used as play-maker rather than in the advanced role from which he has scored many of his 11 goals this season.
There was no disguising Bolton Wanderers' suffocating tactics and, although Kevin Nolan almost picked out the unmarked Ricardo Gardner from a cross in only the second minute, it was another 82 before the visitors mustered a goal attempt.
It was all about patience for a Liverpool side displaced for two hours as leaders by Chelsea and seldom can they have been granted such a monopoly on possession and territory than they were by these opponents who added next to nothing to the spectacle. Keane might have struck much earlier had he not been wrong-footed when trying to divert Riera's shot on target following Gerrard's corner, and Kuyt should have done better than head over when unmarked from Jamie Carragher's diagonal centre.
In between, Jussi Jaaskelainen had fortune on his side when pushing Emiliano Insua's volley from another Gerrard corner back through the ruck of players from which it had sped.
Bolton's luck didn't hold, Jlloyd Samuel and Johan Elmander losing Riera at the near post and seeing the Spanish winger poke home left-footed from Gerrard's 26th-minute corner. "To concede a goal direct from a corner, other than to a header, is not acceptable at any level," said Bolton's manager Gary Megson.
The killer blows were delicious. Gerrard's threaded pass released Keane to crash home the second with his left foot and a move started by Pepe Reina's under-arm throw, and continued superbly by the highly impressive duo of Xabi Alonso and Yossi Benayoun, ended with an emphatic shot swept in on the run.
There should have been more but Liverpool were content enough as they ensured they go through 2008 without a single home league defeat and within a victory of their best points haul in a calendar year since last winning the league 19 years ago. One question burns more than any other, though. Can they do what they have done on 10 of the previous 15 occasions on which they have led the table at Christmas and go on to win the league?
Goals: Riera (26) 1-0; Keane (53) 2-0; Keane (57) 3-0
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Carragher, Hyypia, Agger, Insua; Benayoun, Gerrard (Lucas, 73), Alonso, Riera (El Zhar, 69); Kuyt (Ngog, 77); Keane. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Babel, Mascherano, Darby.
Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Andy O'Brien, Samuel (Davies, HT); Taylor (Riga, 66), Muamba, Nolan, McCann, Gardner; Elmander (Smolarek, 66). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Shittu, Basham, Obadeyi.
Booked: Liverpool Agger. Bolton Nolan, Steinsson, McCann.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Man of the match: Keane.
Liverpool's 3-0 win over Bolton means Barnsley are the only team to have beaten them at home in 2008 and sees the Reds reclaim their Christmas No 1 spot, a position from which they last won the title in the 1987-88 season.