Dominic Fifield at Anfield
Happy birthday, Robbie Fowler. The Liverpool striker was 31 yesterday and could celebrate last night content that he had produced this drab occasion's only moment likely to linger in the memory. A match-winner once more, age having failed to blunt his instinctive sharpness in front of goal, he can rest a little easier that the gift of a new contract will soon be forthcoming.
This contest had been wallowing in mediocrity when he offered the decisive flash of opportunism deep into stoppage time at the end of the first half. The game reverted to an ugly, spluttering spectacle thereafter but Rafael Benítez still departed cheered. The Spaniard takes particular pleasure from beating Sam Allardyce and Bolton, such has been the niggling rivalry between the clubs and managers recently, and a sixth successive win has hoisted Liverpool to 70 points for only the second time in a decade.
One more victory could guarantee third place. Many more goals as significant as this will surely secure Fowler a one-year deal. "It's his birthday and scoring goals is the best way to celebrate for a striker but we are not talking about his new contract," said Benítez through a smile, the manager tired of addressing the issue publicly. "That'll be the next question. I like to see him scoring goals, for sure, and also playing well. The most important thing for us is to see him working hard until the end. He did that."
Fowler actually departed with 14 minutes to go but by then Liverpool appeared as good as safe and Wanderers psychologically scarred. His decisive contribution had been made as the referee prepared to bring a desperate first half to a merciful conclusion, the striker flicking on Jamie Carragher's punt and collecting Peter Crouch's knock-down to scuff a low diagonal shot beyond Jussi Jaaskelainen and into the corner.
Bolton have conceded 12 times to Fowler in the 13 games he has played against them for Liverpool and Leeds. "That goal was what Robbie's all about," said Allardyce. "He mishit it and bobbled it into the corner. Even when he doesn't connect properly, he gets it on target."
A miskick it may have been but the visitors failed to offer anything vaguely as potent. Kevin Nolan and Stelios Giannakopoulos, the latter bursting through the centre on to Xabi Alonso's inadvertent pass only to dribble a shot for José Reina to turn away, should have pierced Liverpool's defence in the opening eight minutes. The chances were squandered, Wanderers' heads dropped when they conceded and a fourth successive defeat - their worst sequence since December 2004 - has undermined their hopes of reaching the Uefa Cup.
"The Premiership will always punish you and we paid the price again for creating good opportunities and not converting them," added Allardyce. "The goal we conceded has killed us off and knocked the boys back. They tried so hard in the second half but didn't quite believe they could get there. There's a really down feeling about the players at the moment and that's what results bring even if the performances have been OK."
Wanderers still frustrated Liverpool, even in arrears, with Bruno N'Gotty excellent at the heart of their defence and the initial burst of energy provided by the substitute Luis Garcia rather fizzling out. But Alonso and Gerrard eventually imposed their authority to ensure Liverpool shrugged off a tendency to propel long balls and, instead, began passing along the turf.
The Spanish midfielder spanked a low shot against a post and Gerrard saw another snuffed out by N'Gotty's block before Crouch twice presented free headers to Jaaskelainen. At the other end, a clever dart from Kevin Davies aside, there was little to suggest that Reina would be denied a 32nd clean sheet of term.
Benítez will find satisfaction in that. Bolton inflicted the first Premiership defeat on his Liverpool side last season and curtailed the European champions' 11-match winning streak in January with an acrimonious 2-2 draw. For this relief the Spaniard can thank the birthday boy.
Man of the match Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
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