IN an unbelievable finish at a raucous Reebok last night, Dean Holdsworth sent Bolton Wanderers to the top of the Premiership table with a strong strike that will give Liverpool's keeper Sander Westerveld nightmares for years to come.
Holdsworth had cut in from the left and let fly with his right foot. As powerful as the shot was, it still appeared a routine collection for Westerveld. But the ball squirmed from the Dutchman's grasp and fell over the line, gifting Bolton all the points as the home fans celebrated lustily.
A draw had seemed the limit of Bolton's ambitions when the excellent Emile Heskey equalised Michael Ricketts' opener and Liverpool intensified their siege. But then came Westerveld's moment of madness on a night of ricks and Ricketts. And it could have been worse for Liverpool but Stephane Henchoz cleared Bo Hansen's shot off the line.
To the relief of Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was watching on like a director hosting a casting audition, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen came through unscathed while Heskey's stirring, goalscoring cameo demands his inclusion in England's attack for Saturday's World Cup qualifier in Munich. Heskey scored with his first touch after coming on for the disappointing Robbie Fowler, whose only mark on the game was a caution for diving.
Until Heskey's dramatic arrival after 63 minutes, the game had seen Bolton at their best, defending with intelligence and commitment when Liverpool's skilled technicians came calling, flooding the midfield to frustrate such vaunted visitors and counter-attacking at pace.
Spirit courses through a team strengthened further by a spine comprising the canny old Gudni Bergsson, the stocky, occasionally silky youngster Kevin Nolan, the dynamic Per Frandsen and the goal-scoring Ricketts.
So prolific in the First Division last year, Ricketts maintained his record of scoring in every Premiership game since promotion with an easy finish midway through the opening half. Liverpool's defenders were culpable of ball-watching but Bolton's brio and diligent homework on set-pieces had to be admired.
Nolan, a Liverpool fan whose father used to play in the same Merseyside team as Fowler's, set the stage with a low shot deflected for a corner. Ricardo Gardner and Hansen worked a short-corner routine and soon the ball was dropping towards the far post for the unmarked Paul Warhurst to head back across goal. Ricketts, left alone by Henchoz and Sami Hyypia, had time and space to nod the ball home.
Stung into action, Liverpool raised their game, flowing forward towards Bolton's goal. Gerrard's muscular running down the right worried Bolton as did Owen's fleet movement through the middle but Sam Allardyce's defenders, splendidly marshalled by Bergsson, never panicked. How the Reebok roared its approval of their side's well-drilled defiance.
But Liverpool simply began a siege which brought reward with Heskey's arrival. Liverpool thought they had found a way through in the 29th minute. Released by Danny Murphy, Fowler sped into the box but having failed to control the ball fell to earth a yard after Jussi Jaaskelainen, Bolton's keeper, had slid in to make an entirely legal challenge.
Fowler was duly cautioned by Graham Poll for diving, a rare black mark on the reputation of a forward not known for taking a tumble.
Fowler was Liverpool's captain and this was conduct unbecoming; he and his colleagues took a more legitimate route to goal moments later when Fowler dummied the ball which Owen helped on to Murphy, whose low shot was pushed away by a relieved Jaaskelainen.
Still Liverpool probed; still Bolton resisted. Yet Fowler should really have equalised after 34 minutes but flailed lamely at an Owen cross, much to Jaaskelainen's relief. The Finn then displayed his alert reactions in keeping out Gary McAllister's drive.
Liverpool's pressure continued after the break, Owen directing a McAllister corner just wide. Faced with an unyielding white line, Gerard Houllier sent on Heskey for Fowler, so reuniting an Owen-Heskey pairing that had helped account for Bayern Munich in last Friday's Super Cup.
Heskey's presence was immediately felt. When McAllister threaded the ball diagonally through Bolton's defence, Heskey drove the ball low past Jaaskelainen.
Liverpool were level and Heskey almost swept them ahead in the 73rd minute only for Jaaskelainen to save well.
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