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Benítez takes fight to Bolton and finally lays hoodoo to rest

Buried deep in Rafael Benítez's programme notes for this fixture was a warning Bolton did not heed. The Spaniard's pre-match observations had already touched upon the fact that visiting sides seek to contain here, and now he wrote: "We are prepared to fight first and then play our football." As a forecast of this occasion, that was uncanny.

There was relief in victory. Liverpool may be familiar with overcoming Bolton at Anfield but, even though he has generally flourished since arriving from Valencia, Benítez has come to consider Sam Allardyce and his Wanderers as the last great mystery of English football. Their physical approach has dumbfounded him at times, particularly at the Reebok, but so emphatic was his own side's eventual dominance yesterday that he can consider the hoodoo finally laid to rest.

The huff and puff stretched beyond the hour mark here, the hosts probing down either flank while Bolton's wheezing players retreated further into their shells, but the patience paid off. Midway through the second half the visitors were finally prised apart. Jermaine Pennant, a player who has spluttered more than scintillated since his £6.7m summer arrival at Anfield, suddenly revelled in new-found space against tiring opponents and Dirk Kuyt's relentless running yielded reward. Wanderers were torn apart and, in 83 breathless seconds, this game was surrendered.

"We knew the chances would come late on because both teams went into this game tired," said Benítez. "The wide areas were maybe the key. My wingers had to run behind their defenders, keeping them deep so they didn't have time to pass the ball. They kept them deep."

Just after the hour, Kuyt jinked away from two befuddled markers before slipping Pennant clear down the right. The winger's cross was angled behind the penalty spot but Peter Crouch, pulling away from Tal Ben Haim, whipped his elastic legs to connect gloriously on the volley and bury the loose ball beyond Jussi Jaaskelainen.

A scissor-kick to match that conjured against Galatasaray in the Champions League earlier in the season, it was Crouch's 10th goal of the Premiership campaign and his first in the league since the end of October. This was only his second 90-minute performance of the season to date and, in the flurry of chances that followed his opener, it was an occasion to savour.

While Bolton were still reeling from the first goal, Kuyt and Pennant combined, the Dutchman flinging over a tantalising cross which Steven Gerrard, terrorising Nicky Hunt and Ben Haim, volleyed into the top corner from the edge of the area.

That was Liverpool's 12th attempt on target, their reward for the exercise in attrition undertaken in the opening period - the nearest they had come then was Steve Finnan's drive tipped smartly by Jaaskelainen on to the bar. Bolton had yet to muster even one. "I could smell it coming," said Allardyce. "It was a game too many from our point of view. We didn't get anything like the sort of energy needed to keep Liverpool out. They wore us down and we cracked in the end. It wasn't surprising."

Defeat here ended a run of five consecutive victories and Bolton have now lost third place to Liverpool. For all the willing running of Nicolas Anelka and Kevin Davies, and the ruggedness of Abdoulaye Faye at the back, Bolton were heaving to contain the hosts in the latter stages. Luis García's introduction further stretched Wanderers' backline as, fed by his fellow Spaniard Xabi Alonso, he wriggled away from three opponents to liberate Kuyt. The Dutchman held off Ricardo Gardner and squirmed a shot low beyond Jaaskelainen for his seventh goal of the season.

Had Jaaskelainen not conjured a save to defy belief from Sami Hyypia late on and Crouch not fluffed two free headers in front of goal, Bolton would have been dismissed to the tune of an Australian cricket score. "You have to pose some kind of threat when you have some possession away from home," added Allardyce, "but I'm surprised to hear we even created one chance of any note."

For Benítez there have been few afternoons as satisfying as this since he came to the Premiership. Allardyce had inflicted his first domestic defeat with Liverpool at the Reebok in the autumn of 2004, an afternoon which saw the new manager's expensive arrivals visibly shocked by the pace and physicality of the occasion and one of the older heads, Hyypia, break his nose. Since then the antipathy has simmered between these managers, Benítez having taken to grumbling at Wanderers' strong-arm tactics and descent into gamesmanship. This was proof that Liverpool can beat the likes of Bolton at their own game.

It remains to be seen whether that form can be transposed to the Reebok but the Merseysiders are used to triumphing at home. This was a 27th unbeaten league game in succession, their best sequence since 1981, and they have still conceded only one goal in the Premiership since mid-November. There was much encouragement to be had in the displays of Pennant and Kuyt in particular. "Now we've got to keep this going and try and close this gap between us and the top two," said Gerrard. Optimism suddenly abounds in these parts.

Man of the match: Jermaine Pennant
Liverpool have been waiting for a performance of this quality from the former Birmingham winger, whose gliding runs and improving delivery floored the visitors. Best moment The wonderful combination play with Dirk Kuyt and excellent cross which was dispatched thrillingly by Peter Crouch to open the scoring.

Liverpool
Jose Manuel Reina, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard (Fabio Aurelio), Mark Gonzalez (Javier Sanz Luis Garcia), Jermaine Pennant, John Arne Riise, Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt (Robbie Fowler)

Bolton
Jussi Jaaskelainen, Tal Ben-Haim, Nicky Hunt, Abdoulaye Diagne-Faye, Ricardo Gardner, Ramos Ivan Campo, Kevin Nolan (Andranik Teimourian), Gary Speed (Idan Tal), Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Davies, El Hadji Diouf (Ricardo Vaz Te)

Referee: Poll, G

Venue: Anfield

Attendance: 41,370

Corners:
Liverpool 8
Bolton 8

Goal Attempts:
Liverpool 19
Bolton 1

On Target:
Liverpool 9
Bolton 0


Copyright - The Guardian

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