On the ground where Rafael Benitez suffered his first defeat and first culture shock as manager of Liverpool four years ago, his team yesterday confirmed how much they have grown up since. This time they weathered the storm that finally blew up on each side of half-time and should have won by a larger margin while maintaining the pressure on Chelsea at the head of the table.
Bolton, strong as ever on set-pieces, nevertheless went away feeling hard done by after having a goal controversially disallowed from a corner in the last minute of the first half. Rob Styles' decision that Kevin Nolan impeded Pepe Reina was understandable, although it was unfortunate in that he was the referee who gave a shocking penalty against them at Old Trafford in September.
Benitez claimed: "The six-yard box is for the keeper. If you have three players in front of him, he cannot go for the ball. It's obstruction. It's the rules." Fifa guidelines to referees state: "It is an offence to restrict the movement of the goalkeeper by unfairly impeding him, for example at the taking of a corner kick."
Bolton's manager, Gary Megson, who had given much thought to his planning at set-pieces, predictably disagreed. "There was nothing wrong with it," he said. "If there's any infringement, it would be a penalty for a shove on Nolan."
Benitez had not won here before last season and must have wondered early in the second half if his players would be punished, like Manchester United at Everton recently, for not making more of their earlier dominance. Their profligacy continued to the end, but fortunately Steven Gerrard atoned for his one bad miss by heading in to double the lead gained by Dirk Kuyt, who had earlier smacked a shot against the bar.
Fernando Torres, still not match-fit, came on for the last half hour and set up Gerrard's goal, though for a while it looked as if Bolton's RicardoGardner would be the more influential substitute. Brought on for the second half in place of Fabrice Muamba, who had been man-marking Gerrard, he offered some attacking threat at last but was another player guilty of some poor finishing.
With only three points covering the bottom half of the table at the start of play, Bolton cannot afford to become too excited about reaching 11th place and will struggle if their strikers cannot score some goals.
There was an air of inevitability about the manner in which Liverpool went in front after dominating the first quarter of the game. Half-chances came and went, and Kuyt was closest of all in the 22nd minute, hitting a fierce drive against the bar after a neat one-two with Gerrard. Six minutes later the visitors built a move of notable patience from the back, 21 passes flowing between red shirts until Albert Riera's cross rebounded to Fabio Aurelio for a centre to the far side, where Muamba allowed Kuyt to head in unopposed.
Had Robbie Keane tapped in Kuyt's low cross from four yards almost immediately afterwards, instead of somehow miscuing, Bolton's task would have been immeasurably harder. Having failed to force Reina into a save, they changed the system to a straight 4-4-2, committing Johan Elmander further forward, and thought they had equalised just before the interval.
Inevitably, the chance followed a set-piece, in this case a corner from the left. Three Bolton players stood unmarked, crowding Reina, who pushed one of them, Nolan, out of his way before the kick was swung over and headed in by Gary Cahill.
To the home crowd's fury, the referee agreed with Benitez that Nolan had obstructed the goalkeeper. With Gardner winning free-kicks by running at a defence in which Jamie Carragher was deputising at right-back, Bolton enjoyed their one good spell over the next quarter of an hour. Elmander, who has managed only one goal in eight games since arriving at the Reebok, had a shot from an acute angle beaten away and Gardner, sent clear by Kevin Davies, slipped while side-stepping the goalkeeper and skewed his shot wide.
Liverpool held out, however, and slowly re-established control. Gerrard unwittingly emulated Keane by jabbing wide from the easiest of positions after Torres crossed, but when the Spaniard toyed with Andy O'Brien before setting Gerrard up again, a glancing header settled the visitors' nerves.
In an eventful last 10 minutes, Jussi Jaaskelainen saved well from Torres and the excellent Xabi Alonso, Torres and Lucas Leiva missed badly and at the other end Gardner, clear again, lobbed over the bar.