It was on the eve of a do-or-die Champions League group tie against Olympiakos in 2004 that Steven Gerrard delivered his most infamous clarion call to Liverpool, accusing the club of broken promises and threatening to leave before guiding the team to qualification and ultimately the miracle in Istanbul. Last week's admission of embarrassment at the league table was tame by comparison and different in where the captain laid blame. But the reaction was the same - an identical scoreline that gives Rafael Benítez hope of a continued run among the European elite.
Liverpool's first league victory at Bolton since 2002, and their manager's first in four trips to the Reebok, brought only temporary enjoyment of the fourth place - Everton's defeat of Portsmouth took them three points clear again - the club financially requires but the response to Gerrard's criticism indicated a few truths had hit home. Here was a routine win delivered with a minimum of fuss from a team with a settled core, the lack of which had prompted the accusation that the squad was underachieving rather than, as he claimed three seasons ago, under-resourced.
"You need to do that sometimes when you are captain," Gerrard said yesterday. "It was not a negative rallying call but a positive one, because this club is used to big performances and big wins." Another at home to West Ham on Wednesday will draw Liverpool level with their Merseyside rivals and a sustained run of this form - this was their finest league display of 2008 - will place formidable pressure on David Moyes' side. "We have a game in hand and so fourth place depends on us," said Benítez. "It is in our own hands."
If only, cursed Gary Megson and Bolton, the same were true of Jussi Jaaskelainen.The precious breakthrough for Liverpool yesterday was blessed with fortune but said more about the weaknesses inherent in Bolton, who had made a dominant start, striking the crossbar through an El Hadji Diouf free-kick and missing a glorious chance when he failed to convert a Joey O'Brien header two yards from goal. Then, precisely as they had done having equalised and taken the upper hand at Blackburn last Sunday, Bolton self-destructed.
A calamitous moment for Jaaskelainen would never have occurred but for a loss of possession by Joey O'Brien, although the slapstick truly arrived once Ryan Babel fed Gerrard and the captain let fly from 20 yards. His angled shot was sailing wide and yet the goalkeeper elected to make the save, a decision that veered from unnecessary to disastrous as the ball spun through the Finn's grasp and on to his head, back over his body and bounced over the line. Gerrard could not hide his embarrassment as he cavorted in celebration.
"Jussi is a great keeper but he has held his hands up and admitted his mistake for that one," said the Bolton manager. "It meant we had to try and force an equaliser rather than play our natural game. In any game the first goal is so important but especially against Liverpool. They have taken the lead 15 times in the league this season, winning 10 and drawing five."
In response Bolton threatened in the air only to find Sami Hyypia commanding and Martin Skrtel equally forceful as the signing from Zenit St Petersburg acclimatises to the Premier League. An outstanding one-handed save from José Reina to deny Kevin Davies on the line, however, served to extract hope from Bolton and Benítez's team, far more composed on the ball, eased towards a valuable three points.
The Liverpool manager's favoured formation of recent weeks, Fernando Torres supported by three playing off him, is made for away days when the home side has to chase the game, and the visitors sliced through the Bolton defence at will. The right-back Gretar Steinsson was forced off with a thigh strain but his departure was also a damage-limitation exercise such was his inability to contain Babel.
The Holland international has made a fluctuating start to his Liverpool career, combining touches of sublime skill with a tendency to vanish. Here was an audition from a player of genuine potential, though, one with all the physical attributes required of a leading forward in his first
90-minute league outing for the club. Babel was foiled twice by Jaaskelainen before he made the game safe on the hour, converting inside the near post after Dirk Kuyt had swept a Jamie Carragher cross on to a post and Gary Cahill failed to clear.
He also squandered an invitation for a second in stoppage time, though by then Fabio Aurelio had volleyed his first Liverpool goal and Bolton's substitute Tamir Cohen had provided minimal consolation with a header from Matt Taylor's corner. "Ryan did OK," remarked Benítez, straight-batting reports he is to be offered an extension to his contract while claiming that "some people have been talking".
12' 0-1 Jaaskelainen (og)
60' 0-2 Babel
75' 0-3 Aurelio
79' Cohen 1-3
Jussi Jaaskelainen, Gary Cahill, Andy O'Brien, A, Joey O'Brien, J, Gretar Steinsson (Grzegorz Rasiak), Ricardo Gardner, Ramos Ivan Campo, Kevin Nolan (Tamir Cohen), Matt Taylor, Kevin Davies, El Hadji Diouf
Jose Manuel Reina, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Martin Skrtel, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt (Alvaro Arbeloa), Fernando Torres (John Arne Riise)
Referee: Dowd, P
Venue: Reebok Stadium
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