High stakes for Bolton's wonderers

COCA-COLA CUP FINAL: Bruce Rioch's side have much resting on tomorrow 's game against Liverpool at Wembley
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The Independent Online
When Liverpool qualified for the Coca-Cola Cup final, the club's next home programme trumpeted "The Evans Era starts here". For Bolton Wanderers, their Wembley opponents, tomorrow's match carries the threat that it will be where the Rioch Era ends.

The discovery that the clever money backs your manager to take over at Arsenal is not the best way to approach a cup final. But, if the prophecy is not to come true, Bolton's players must put such speculation to one side.

Victory tomorrow brings with it a Uefa Cup place and, if Bolton could then go on and win promotion from the Endsleigh League First Division, the twin challenges of Europe and the Premiership may be enough to keep Bruce Rioch at Burnden Park.

If they do not, Bolton may lose more than just their manager, for several players are just as coveted. An indication of the quality of Rioch's side can be seen by the absence this week from their preparation of three players summoned for international duty.

John McGinlay was with Scotland in Moscow, Mixu Paatelainen in San Marino with Finland, and Jason McAteer in Dublin with the Republic of Ireland. Add to them Alan Stubbs, the most sought-after player of the lot, and it is clear that Rioch's team do not fit the usual mould of hustling, bustling giant-killers.

They are instead a team of genuine quality with just as firm a belief in passing as Liverpool. The defenders are all comfortable on the ball and the Trotters, though not afraid to counter-attack with a long ball, prefer to build from the back. In midfield the emphasis is on one-touch passing spiced by Richard Sneekes' shooting and McAteer's drive.

Out wide, David Lee and Alan Thompson make a contrasting pair. Lee is a prematurely balding 28, Thompson a baggy-sleeved 21, but both will test a Liverpool side that can be attacked down the flanks. Between them McGinlay and Paatelainen make a heavyweight duo - their battles with Neil Ruddock should be worth watching.

So should the rest of the match. The Wembley pitch looks in excellent condition - as it should, since hardly anyone uses it - and both sides play attractive football. How positively they approach the game should be shown by team selection. Caution will be indicated by Bolton preferring Mark Patterson to Lee, or Liverpool choosing Stig Inge Bjrnebye to Mark Walters. Lee, who scored an outstanding individual goal in their quarter- final against Norwich, and Bjrnebye are favourites, one to counter the other.

Liverpool, beaten by Bolton at Anfield in the FA Cup two seasons ago, look the stronger. Ian Rush, who needs two goals to equal Geoff Hurst's record of 49 scored in the competition, is fit after hamstring trouble and he and Robbie Fowler may stretch a defence that has a tendency to stand off. Behind them John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp are in excellent form, as is David James, the goalkeeper.

Although Liverpool have won this competition in its various guises a record-equalling four times, only Rush has a winners' medal (all four of them). Surprisingly, more than half the Liverpool team will be making their first Wembley final appearance.

Rush, Rob Jones and Steve McManaman survive from the 1992 FA Cup win over Sunderland - as does, co-incidentally, Philip Don, the referee - and Barnes and John Scales have played in other finals (Scales did so for Wimbledon against Liverpool in 1988).

Bolton have no such experience but they will not lack belief. Since last January, they have played 11 cup matches against Premiership sides, drawing two and winning eight. As well as Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Everton have been beaten. Only Oldham, in a scrappy sixth-round FA Cup tie last year, have defeated them. The club's last Wembley visit was in 1958 when, to the disappointment of the nation, they beat a Manchester United side still reeling from the Munich disaster.

Nat Lofthouse, now club president, scored both goals that day, the most unpopular brace of his illustrious career. This time popular sentiment is on Bolton's side but, unless it is joined by fortune, it could be disappointed again.