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Whisper it, but Reds now look the real deal

HAVING tried laser treatment and surgery, Rafa Benitez has finally found the perfect cure for the intolerable pain caused by kidney stones.

A concoction of three goals, a much needed home win and re-confirmed status as league leaders was just what the doctor ordered for the under the weather Reds boss as Liverpool put on a performance befitting of title challengers.

For that is exactly what they are. It may have been whispered only in Anfield's darkest corners in recent weeks as their stumbling home form threatened to obliterate any feelgood factor before it had even taken hold.

But when you are top of the league on Boxing Day having lost just a single match since the season got underway you are duty bound to start fancying your chances.

And if you can't believe at Christmas when can you believe?

The way Liverpool demolished Bolton suggested that they are beginning to believe and equally importantly so are their fans who informed anyone within earshot that they do not believe the Reds will be moved from the lofty position they currently occupy.

Bolton's record at Anfield may have suggested they would be lambs to the slaughter but the same could have been said of Fulham and West Ham who both recently belied an historic inferiority to deprive Liverpool of valuable points.

The difference this time was that Liverpool played with a purpose and a tempo which ensured their superiority would not go unrewarded.

Having been asked recently what the Reds needed to do to win more games at home, Albert Riera came up with a very straightforward answer – shoot more.

Even the most seemingly intractable problems can sometimes require the most simple of solutions and by practising what he had preached, Riera laid the platform for Liverpool's most positive and assured performance at Anfield in several weeks.

The goal he scored owed a lot to some uncertain defending at a corner from Gary Megson's side but it was no less than Liverpool deserved for pinning their opponents back from the first blast of Alan Wiley's whistle.

During his side's recent sticky patch, Benitez maintained that the Anfield crowd would see a different team if and when they scored the first goal. And so it proved as having taken a first half advantage Liverpool turned on the style, ruthlessly exposing the huge gulf in class that existed between the hosts and their visitors.

At the heart of it all were two players who have seen their Liverpool future questioned.

Xabi Alonso was a class apart, spraying passes around and dominating midfield with a style and grace that will surely leave everyone at Liverpool relieved that the Spaniard did not leave last summer.

And two goal hero Robbie Keane again did his utmost to ensure that speculation suggesting he could be allowed to depart next month is never allowed to become anything more than that.

Keane's two goals may have been very different but they were equally impressive and any frustration he may have harboured over the way his Liverpool career has unfolded thus far must surely now have dissipated.

His first was created expertly by Steven Gerrard who threaded a pass through the eye of a needle for the Irishman to run onto and Keane did the rest, unleashing an unstoppable shot which gave Jussi Jaaskelainen no chance.

If that strike brought the crowd to its feet, Keane's second left the Anfield fans purring in appreciation as a move swept from one end of the field to another as an intricate and free flowing attack which started with Pepe Reina ended with the former Spurs man calmly stroking the ball into the back of the net.

Liverpool may have scored more dramatic goals this season but they haven't scored one that was easier on the purist's eye than this one.

It also ensured that they would become the only team in the entire four divisions of the English league to go the current calendar year unbeaten, not bad for a side which is still to be taken as seriously as it should be when the names of potential champions are discussed.

It is still a long, long way to go in the marathon that is the title race before anyone at Anfield can get too excited but having already shown they can last the distance up to the halfway stage Liverpool can now look forward to the remaining miles with confidence.

Having recorded 42 points from their first 19 games, they will know that a similar haul in the second half of the campaign would give them an outstanding chance of being there or thereabouts when the finishing line approaches.

Not that Benitez, his staff or his players are looking that far ahead of course. The mood within the camp was best summed up by a post match quip from Sammy Lee who has given the Reds boss magnificent support ever since he was laid low by illness.

Asked if the second half of Liverpool's season mirrors the first half will it be enough to make them champions, the Reds assistant boss answered: "I can't answer that, with a face like mine I don't look in the mirror."

He can certainly look at the league table though and there are few prettier sights for Liverpool fans than the one which will greet them when they look at their newspapers today.

Liverpool are in the place they want to be and they are there on merit and now they are actually starting to look as if they are enjoying it.

From Jamie Carragher going on shimmying runs from right back to Keane shaking off the early season malaise which had threatened to end his Reds career before it had even got started, there was a joie de vivre about Liverpool against Bolton that has not been apparent all season.

And it will have left their manager feeling as well as he has done at any time this season.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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