Welcome respite for Houllier

Anfield must have felt a very different kind of place for Gerard Houllier yesterday as he shuffled out to the edge of his coaching area to supervise the substitutions. For a start, there was no booing from the Liverpool fans, and the two goals scored early in the second half will lift the pressure on the Liverpool manager's regime, for the near future at least. 

Liverpool's third goal, which arrived after 54 minutes, was headed in by Vladimir Smicer, who finished his side's woeful defeat by Southampton two weeks ago in dispute with a portion of the Kop. That will be a reminder to Houllier of just how quickly fortunes can change in the Premiership, but the fundamental question at Liverpool will remain the same: are this team serious contenders for the fourth Champions League place?

Before Sami Hyypia headed in their first goal after half an hour there was plenty more of the soporific attacking that had driven Anfield to distraction during the game against Southampton. Harry Kewell was back in the attack alongside Florent Sinama-Pongolle, but the Australian did not look completely fit. In midfield the story was the same; Steven Gerrard was doing the work of two men.

Quite how Houllier carried the misery of that defeat to Southampton through the cancellation of the Wolves game and past Christmas, only his family will know, but the Liverpool manager appeared after this match with a smile and a joke. It came as no surprise that he saw the first half as a triumph for Hyypia and Igor Biscan over the lone threat of Kevin Davies. But he will now have to cope without Chris Kirkland for a month with a fractured finger.

"I am disappointed that we didn't keep a clean sheet but I could feel a strength and solidity about us," Houllier said. "You need to have a strong defensive performance. Everyone seemed to work for each other and run the extra yard.

"Bolton had one chance in the first half but I would say that the solidity of the team seems to have come back. It may be pragmatic but when you have players out as we have you need that. We chased the game but when things were not going well we didn't panic. In any game of football you have good spells but I thought we kept our cool and composure."

However, it was not until Sinama-Pongolle, and then Smicer, extended Liverpool's lead after half-time that the stadium witnessed a change in Houllier's demeanour. Hunched over on the bench, he will have known that if Ivan Campo had directed his free header from Ricardo Gardner's cross inside Kirkland's post three minutes before half-time then the second half would have been a good deal less comfortable.

When Sam Allardyce's team won at Anfield in the Carling Cup earlier this month, Houllier abandoned his traditional stance and turned his ire on his own players for throwing away their defence of the trophy. This time it was the Bolton manager's turn to despair. Victories over Chelsea and Liverpool, as well as a draw with Arsenal, have given Allardyce good reason to expect more from his side.

Bolton had begun to quiver in the lead-up to Hyypia's goal when Jussi Jaaskelainen miscued a punch from the defender's header and was forced to shove the ball over the bar for another corner. Danny Murphy hooked the ball in from the right side and Hyypia smashed his header home through a crowded box.

"The level of performance was so disappointing that it was really beyond belief," Allardyce said. "After reaching such a level in previous games that was unacceptable. Hopefully, it was just one of those days and they have got it out of their system. If we had been given a penalty we would probably have tripped over taking it."

The second Liverpool goal came 63 seconds after half-time when Sinama-Pongolle, chosen ahead of Emile Heskey, headed home John Arne Riise's cross. Eight minutes later, Smicer lunged to head in Jon Otsemobor's free-kick after Per Frandsen had chopped down Gerrard.

Allardyce removed his three most famous names - Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Campo - out of frustration after the third goal and it was Henrik Pedersen, one of the substitutes, who toed in the consolation with five minutes left after Hyypia failed to clear. The goal was a dark little reminder of how bad it can get at Liverpool - and how far away that fourth spot remains.

Match details

Liverpool: Kirkland, Otsemobor, Biscan, Hyypia, Riise, Murphy, Hamann, Gerrard, Kewell (Diouf 66), Smicer (Le Tallec 79), Sinama Pongolle (Heskey 66).
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Henchoz.
Goals: Hyypia 30, Sinama Pongolle 47, Smicer 54.

Bolton: Jaaskelainen, Hunt, Thome, Charlton, Gardner, Nolan, Frandsen, Campo (Ba 51), Okocha (Pedersen 51), Djorkaeff (Giannakopoulos 51), Davies.
Subs Not Used: Poole, Barness.
Booked: Frandsen, Hunt.
Goals: Pedersen 85.

Att: 42,987
Ref: J Winter (Cleveland). 

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