Reds stumble past Bolton but storm clouds remain
Liverpool 2 Bolton 0
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
CRISIS over. Unbeaten in six Premier League games, earning 14 from a possible 18 points and lying just a solitary point off that coveted, crucial Champions League spot, Liverpool have emerged from their long, bleak winter, and with spring has come the green shoots of recovery.
Not quite. True, a scruffy Dirk Kuyt strike and an own-goal from the unfortunate Kevin Davies helped Rafael Benitez's side see off Owen Coyle's industrious, dogged Bolton and make the most of Tottenham's late slip at Birmingham. True, given the extent of Liverpool's travails, the club are in no position to snub their nose at any victory.
But it will take more than a handful of spirited, committed displays to disperse the storm clouds that linger over Anfield. Their effects were there in the noisy protests of hundreds of fans after the final whistle, directed at Tom Hicks and George Gillett and in the silent anxiety of many thousands more before referee Steve Bennett had drawn a close to their torment.
Different decibel levels, different demographics, same message. This cannot continue. Not in the boardroom, where Hicks and Gillett have mired the club with £237m of debt despite their promises to the contrary, and not on the pitch, where a team built by Benitez needs "all the breaks", as a gracious Coyle put it, to see off opposition as limited as Bolton. And not in the headlines, either, where the Spaniard is fluttering his eyelashes in the direction of Juventus's glances.
That Benitez has been willing to indulge the Old Lady's fantasies is testament to his love of Machiavellian machinations, and his belief that he can force American hands by appealing to those who have stood by him in the past.
If he needed any proof that this time he is playing a dangerous game, though, it came from the deafening quiet of the Kop. Liverpool's fans are divided on whether the miracle-worker of Istanbul should be allowed time to restore his reputation. Some believe he has found himself hamstrung by the financial plight he has been placed in by Hicks, who was at this game, and Gillett, who was not but who is believed to be in England talking to investors. Others suggest that, whether it was obtained through player sales or not, Benitez has had plenty of money to spend.
For much of the first half, the Spaniard's doubters would have felt vindicated. Benitez's side needed 23 minutes to shake Anfield from the grip of its collective torpor, when Emiliano Insua and Kuyt nearly combined. Six minutes later, they actually had a shot.
By that stage, Bolton should have been ahead. Lee Chung-Yong had the chance of the half, robbing Insua on the half-way line, scampering past Martin Skrtel and Pepe Reina and only seeing a wonderful effort denied by Sotirios Kyrgiakos on the line.
Benitez was good enough to describe his side as "a bit lucky" that they not only survived the first half unscathed, but went into the interval with a scarcely-warranted lead. Albert Riera, otherwise woeful, picked out Insua, whose cross found Alberto Aquilani, otherwise woeful, at the far post. He nodded down, Kuyt scrambled in.
Liverpool improved after the break. Steven Gerrard stepped up a gear, drawing fine saves from Jussi Jaaskelainen before Davies deflected Insua's shot through Gretar Steinsson's legs and past the despairing dive of the keeper.
"We are improving," said Benitez. "We are working very hard and hopefully we can keep the momentum. The second half was much better." Those fans, silent doubters and furious faithful alike, will all hope such is the story of Liverpool's season.