Steve McManaman returned to cast a spell over Wembley with two wonderful solo goals against Bolton in the Coca-Cola Cup final. Five days after sharing in England's frustration against Uruguay, the 23-year-old midfielder conjured two moments of the missing fantasy football to bring Liverpool their record fifth triumph in the competition.
Three years ago the fresh-faced Scouser starred in the FA Cup win against Sunderland, and he shattered the romantic notions of another Endsleigh side to reopen an Anfield trophy cabinet which has been gathering dust in the interim. Bruce Rioch's renowned cup fighters were never overawed or outplayed but by the time Alan Thompson graced a classic encounter with a goal to cheer the thousands of Lancashire fans, McManaman had done his worst.
The 23-year-old has a wonderful touch on the ball but a return of just one goal in more than five months shows how much he needs to sharpen his cutting edge. He could not have chosen a better time to wield the whetstone. Bolton will have nightmares about his first in the 37th minute as he ran onto John Barnes' pass, drifted outside of the elegant Alan Stubbs and then jinked inside full-back Scott Green. His sidefooted shot was not the most powerful but the unbalanced Keith Branagan could not get a real touch as it scurried across him and towards the far corner.
But there was no denying the quality of his second in the 68th minute as he cut in from the left, rounding Green,swinging inside Jason McAteer and then drifting in front of Mark Seagraves before curling a low right foot shot beyond Branagan's left hand. Thompson hooked in an instantaneous reply, but Liverpool clung on to give five-times winner Ian Rush the honour of hoisting his the League Cup into the Wembley air for the first time as skipper. It was also a debut triumph for manager Roy Evans and a vindication of his loyalty to most of the players he inherited from the mean-spirited reign of Graeme Souness.
For all that it was Liverpool's 30th Wembley appearance in as many years, for most of Evans' young side it was as novel an experience as for Bolton in their first major final since 1958.
Whether from nerves or simple respect for the underdogs' impressive giantkilling pedigree, the Premiership side took it cautiously in contrast to the barnstorming build-up the Football League laid on before the kick-off. They were wary of the pace of David Lee on the right and an early breakout which allowed him to escape the close attention of Stig Bjornebye showed why, while Phil Babb was booked cutting short his run in the 20th minute. The former Blackburn schools apprentice might have scored on the half hour when Jason McAteer chipped him clear and he won the race to the ball with goalkeeper David James. But his soaring angled lob from 30 yards sailed inches the wrong side of the crossbar ontothe netting.
But the threat comes from many areas of this Bolton side, whose scalp collection began with Liverpool's in the FA Cup two years ago and has grown impressively since, with Ipswich, West Ham and Norwich falling on the road to Wembley. Only a world class save from James denied Alan Thompson in the 34th minute when he swivelled onto Jimmy Phillips' throw and unwound a dipping 25-yard volley that the Liverpool goalkeeper tipped onto his bar with his 'wrong' right hand.
But just when Bolton were beginning to enjoy themselves, Liverpool pounced and one feared the worst for the Endsleigh reps. But in front of the 70-year-old Burnden Park legend Nat Lofthouse and his old adversaries Tom Finney and Sir Stanley Matthews, they staged a fightback that had their fans on the edge of their seats. Rob Jones was booked for a foul on Thompson and James ventured out of his area disastrously, John McGinlay keeping the ball from him and swinging it in for Mixu Paatelainen to volley a yard wide.
Moments later McAteer's brilliant pass put Thompson in on the right but he pulled his left-foot shot across the face of the goal with James struggling. But once again Liverpool's class asserted itself, with Bjornebye stretching onto Ian Rush's return pass in the 52nd minute for an eight-yard right footer that spun onto the base of the far post. Then Mark Seagraves dived in ahead of Rush onto Bjornebye's low cross and was thankful for Branagan for saving him from a spectacular own goal. It was an ominous build-up to McManaman's second strike. But even after that Bolton refused to lay down and fully deserved to get back into the game.
Neil Ruddock's headed clearance was hoisted back in by substitute Gudni Bergsson, Paatelainen flicked it on and Thompson swivelled to hook in the lifeline goal. Bolton, surely good enough to get into the Premiership at last next season, threw everything into the search for an equaliser and Bjornebye was booked for a foul on the livewire Lee. But Liverpool know better than any team how to protect a lead and though it was nervous stuff at times they held on to restart their silverware collection.
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