Doubts may have been raised about Liverpool's reserves after the Carling Cup defeat at Tottenham Hotspur, but there are none about their first team. Bolton away should be a match that tests wannabe champions - last season Manchester United were beaten here on their way to winning the title - but Liverpool went about their task with a coolness that meant the destination of the points was never in question. If Liverpool were stretching for victories at the start of the season, now there is an inevitability they will come. Seven of their first eight league wins were by a single goal; here they should have won by three or four.
"I said there was plenty of room for improvement," the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benítez, said. "[Steven] Gerrard was not playing at his level, [Fernando] Torres was not fit, some other players needed to improve. Now I have more options and the mood is very good, we can stay at the top."
Benítez expressed his displeasure that Torres, recovering from a hamstring injury, will join up with the Spain squad this week and it is easy to understand why. In just half an hour he hit the post, had another chance thwarted by Jussi Jaaskelainen and provided Gerrard with two opportunities; one he fluffed, one he glanced past the Bolton goalkeeper. Liverpool may have won a number of times this season without Gerrard and Torres together but the renewal of their partnership provides an extra attacking dimension they will need when presented with sterner challenges.
The duo's reunion, however, bodes less well for Robbie Keane. The £20m forward, who missed an open goal, has been unable to make the impact required of him during Torres's six-week absence and now it seems his chances will be restricted. After Torres had reignited Liverpool when he replaced Keane, Benítez suggested he does not envisage them as a partnership. "I think the players need to accept sometimes we will change if that is best for the team," he said. "It is difficult because [Keane] is working very hard. But it was a different kind of football in the second half and Torres was the player."
With Bolton belatedly harrying Liverpool in the second half, the Reds could no longer pass the ball as they had done. A centre-forward who would threaten Bolton's high line was required and Keane lacks the pace to be that man. Benítez's 4-2-3-1 formation does not possess the fluency and flexibility of United's, but that is its strength: the specific demands of the system are ingrained in the players.
Sadly for Keane, who is out of the Republic of Ireland's friendly against Poland on Wednesday because of a shoulder injury, he may not have a role. The strict tactical discipline that Benítez demands has led him to rotate his players less this year. Indeed, Liverpool have been playing championship-calibre football since February, with 68 points from their last 28 Premier League games. With Benítez's tinkering, in previous seasons his players have remained fresh and ended the campaign well. Whether they can maintain their current pace playing more matches remains to be seen.
Benítez believes they can; more importantly so do his players. The ever-present Dirk Kuyt's transformation has been most eye-catching, and he scored the opener by heading in Fabio Aurelio's cross. However, it was another player who has appeared in every league game, Xabi Alonso, who stood out. Benítez must be relieved he did not let his compatriot depart for Juventus during the summer. Alonso dictated the tempo of the match in the first half, orchestrating every move like the quarterback David Beckham once hoped to be.
"We still think we can improve but we are keeping the ball well and working well together," Alonso said. "We try to have control in all areas of the game." For now Liverpool have exactly that.
Man of the match Xabi Alonso (Liverpool)
One rule for him
Confusion surrounds Rafael Benítez's claim that Bolton broke an 'international rule' when Gary Cahill headed a disallowed goal just before half-time. Bolton placed Kevin Davies, Kevin Nolan and Cahill in the six-yard box for Gavin McCann's corner to hinder José Reina.
'There's a rule that says the six-yard box is for the keeper,' said Benítez. 'He has priority. If you have three players in front of the keeper, he cannot go for the ball. It's obstruction, it's a free-kick, simple. These are the rules. They are the international rules, Fifa rules, not English rules.'
Fifa was last night unavailable to confirm this rule exists but there is no evidence of it in its Laws of the Game and Gary Megson claimed not to know of it.
Saturday November 15 2008 12.45
Bolton Wanderers 0 – 2 (HT 0 – 1) Liverpool
Bookings Nolan 63
Bolton Wanderers's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 7 70% 3 30%
Goal attempts 14 48% 15 52%
On target 8 57% 6 43%
Fouls 7 50% 7 50%
Offside 1 16% 5 84%
Bolton Wanderers Jussi Jaaskelainen, Jlloyd Samuel, Andy O'Brien, A, Gary Cahill, Gretar Steinsson, Matt Taylor (Ebi Smolarek, 84), Kevin Nolan, Fabrice Muamba (Ricardo Gardner, 46), Gavin McCann, Kevin Davies, Johan Elmander
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Sami Hyypia, Fabio Aurelio, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera (Yossi Benayoun, 89), Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt (Lucas Leiva, 84), Robbie Keane (Fernando Torres, 59)
Referee Styles, R
Venue Reebok Stadium
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