ONE of the most amusing sights of the build-up to the festive season came when Sir Alex Ferguson spoke through gritted teeth on a closed-circuit television link to Gerard Houllier during the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show. "I'm pleased that you're top of the League," said the Manchester United manager self-mockingly to his club's fierce rivals, who were about to receive the `team of the year' award.
The message, delivered grudgingly, was that Liverpool held an edge over a United side suffering an alarming slump in form.
Since then, Liverpool have taken a miserable six points from six matches while United have won all five of theirs. Tonight, Ferguson's men can make a significant move in climbing above the Merseysiders with a victory over Newcastle.
Liverpool, desperate to end a 12-year wait for their 19th championship, must emulate United and turn around a worrying decline. "It is a concern," admitted Phil Thompson, who continues to guide the team while Houllier completes his recovery from heart surgery.
"But I would be more concerned if the effort was not there. Previously we were getting the rub of the green when we needed it. Now we are not. But we know that it will come back. We are a very good team and we have fought our way back before."
Thompson's sympathetic reaction to the latest unsatisfactory result against plucky Bolton was puzzling. Few in a frustrated crowd of 43,710 would have agreed with his assertion that his team played well against opponents who have slid down the table since attaining League leadership by beating Liverpool at the Reebok Stadium in August.
Completing the double over their illustrious rivals rarely looked likely but Bolton could point to the fact that Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek was a busier goalkeeper than their own Jussi Jaaskelainen, despite Liverpool's dominance in terms of possession and territory.
Dudek, the Poland international, made two splendid saves from Per Frandsen and Michael Ricketts to ensure a disappointing first half finished goalless, and he needed to be at his alert best to prevent the dangerous Ricketts from snatching a late winner for the indefatigable visitors.
Dudek was powerless, however, to prevent teenager Kevin Nolan's joyful return to his home city. Nolan, given the captain's armband in recognition of his special day, swooped 13 minutes from time to punish sloppy Liverpool defending in trying to clear a long throw-in by substitute Gareth Farrelly.
Sam Allardyce, the Bolton manager, praised the character of his players in fighting back so strongly. "It was a fantastic thing for Nolan to come back here and score," Allardyce said. "He can handle being captain just as he has been able to handle the Premiership this season.
"With the other clubs in the bottom half doing well, it could be a priceless point at the end of the season."
Allardyce feared that his men would go under after being broken down four minutes into the second half by a rare moment of inspiration by England's Steven Gerrard. The brilliant young Liverpool midfielder made something out of nothing in collecting a hopeful ball across the penalty area from Michael Owen and sprinting past two would-be tacklers before flicking an exquisite left-footed shot past Jaaskelainen.
If Owen had done the same when sent racing through by Patrik Berger's pass, Liverpool would have added the clinching second goal they needed. The European Footballer of the Year was, on this occasion, found wanting, though, and the Finland international dived to his left to make an important save.
Owen, who at West Ham on Saturday had finally reached his 100-goal milestone for Liverpool, was also thwarted by the reactions of Jaaskelainen from the best opening the home side produced before the interval. Owen charged down an attempted clearance by Colin Hendry - soon to depart with a knee injury - but shot against the legs of the advancing goalkeeper.
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