An action-packed game full of goals, a dramatic late winner from the heartbeat of the side and three points gained from the face of adversity. Twice. It is a belated welcome back to the Premier League for the real Liverpool FC.
Saturday’s 3-2 win at the Reebok Stadium was a curious marriage of the best of the Reds’ impressive 2008/09 campaign and the worst of this current season. Conceding two goals in the manner that they did would have concerned Rafa Benitez, but given that Bolton were the opposition then it was hardly surprising. The Trotters scored two typical Bolton goals against a Reds defence that have struggled against set-pieces throughout this fledgling campaign. That they did so again here was largely down to the influence of human battering-ram Kevin Davies – more of a crowd controller than a Premier League forward – but with a back four containing a player making his debut, another in just his fourth game for the club and a 20-year-old left-back still learning the English game, then problems were to be expected.
As so often when facing Wanderers and their agricultural style, attack is the best form of defence. Liverpool could have been three goals up by the time Davies found enough time in his fouling schedule to open the scoring – but for all their flaws, one thing that Benitez’ side have always had is character and Glen Johnson’s timely response – his second goal in four games (Alvaro Arbeloa scored two in 98) – was a richly deserved reply. Admittedly it was Sean Davis’ red card at 2-1 that was the catalyst for the second-half fightback, with the Bolton midfielder’s dismissal coming more out of stupidity than malice (although Lucas’ protestations towards the referee were unwelcome), but the manner of Liverpool’s response – and the deserved three points it claimed – will bring back memories of them at their resilient best last season, when 22 points were claimed from losing positions by the division’s top scorers. Memories yes, but that is all they are at the moment. For the Reds are still nowhere near their top form.
That Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard should be the rescue acts was more predictable than an X Factor contestant with a sob story, but their latest salvage act came in a week that Benitez delivered a few home truths to the pair and their teammates. Gerrard admitted: “The manager questioned the whole team after Monday’s home defeat by Aston Villa, and rightly so. We were nowhere near good enough and we didn’t play close to our standard. There has been a lot of soul-searching this week. The manager asked for character, determination and intensity and I think he got the three things he wanted from us all. We have had a couple of good meetings this week and we couldn’t wait for this game to come around. We went behind twice but again we showed what character we have in this team.”
That last sentence could have been taken from any number of Gerrard’s post-match interviews last season, a sign that the, in the captain’s words, “character” and “determination” – qualities so conspicuous in their absence at White Hart Lane and at home to Villa – returned to the team on Saturday, and not before time too. It could be said that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United have better individuals than the Reds – United certainly do if you include the half of the Arsenal midfield apparently in their employ – but it is Liverpool’s attitude and team spirit that is their greatest weapon. On Saturday the quality of their football never reached the heights it hit towards the back end of last season, but they still got the three points. Call it winning ugly if you like – with Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Andriy Voronin in the side you’d be obliged to – but it is a sign that the old determination and never-say-die attitude might be returning.
Benitez has all but ruled out any significant additions before this evening’s closure of the transfer window – sponsored by Sky Sports News – but has admitted that those on the fringes of his team could move on (intriguingly neither Ryan Babel nor David Ngog were on the bench on Saturday). There remains a nagging doubt about the depth and quality of his attacking reinforcements – something that will come into sharp and uncomfortable focus should either Gerrard or Torres pick up an injury – but Liverpool head into the international break with a win and a reminder of their terrific powers of recovery. How far they will take them is anyone’s guess, but it will be fun finding out.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1