Rafael Benítez didn’t hold back in his praise for his players after the 3-0 New Year’s Day massacre of Bolton Wanderers: “My team was fantastic and we scored three amazing goals and it's a great way to start the New Year.”
All the goals came in the second half, and although Bolton never troubled Liverpool at all, the Reds needed to step up a gear after the break: “We were waiting for a physical game and in the first half it was more difficult. In the first half I thought we were a little anxious but I told the players at half-time to keep passing and moving and we would get some chances. In the second half we scored the goals and opened the game, it was very good. Crouch scored an amazing goal and could have scored a couple more, it was nice for Gerrard to score after being awarded the MBE and Kuyt scored a deserved goal.
“We knew we were tired and they were tired. I was surprised with Kuyt because I thought he was tired. His work-rate was unbelievable. I'm really pleased with my players as their contribution today was fantastic and Pennant was important for us in the wide areas.”
Rafa made sure that the impressive Pennant’s fellow winger Mark Gonzalez also got a confidence-boosting mention: “Today, Pennant and Gonzalez were pretty important players, running behind defenders. We knew Gerrard and Xabi could be tired so the wingers and the strikers were the key in keeping the other team deep. We had, on both sides, players with ability and pace and with them going forward all the time their defenders cannot go forward if you know the winger is a threat.”
Liverpool managed nine points out of the twelve available from the Christmas programme, but Rafa is disappointed that they didn’t pick up the full twelve: “Overall I'm not happy with our form over Christmas because we should have beaten Blackburn. We had a lot of chances in that game and we need to take them when we create as we did today.”
Rafa had warned the referee Graham Poll before the game that he needed to be wary of the likely attempts by Bolton to be over-physical. In the end Liverpool stood up to all Bolton had to offer, although Poll did book three of their players and showed restraint in not sending off one of the players. The referee’s performance was fine by Rafa: “If it's the same for everybody, perfect.”
Liverpool are now third, their goal difference having improved substantially in recent weeks, and now there’s talk of second place even being in reach. For Rafa though that’s something to think about another time, because Liverpool are now back to Cup football for a couple of games, starting with the FA Cup game against Arsenal at the weekend, as he explained when asked about what Liverpool’s target was: “The next game, the FA Cup against Arsenal. I am not thinking about targets, I am just thinking of winning more games and more points, to try and keep the team playing well, scoring goals and try to win games. Our idea is to win the next three points each time.”
Bolton manager Sam Allardyce was unhappy at the accusations made before the game by Rafael Benítez, but must have regretted saying Liverpool were “lucky” to beat his side last time they met at Anfield. El Hadji-Diouf couldn’t do more than make some attempts to inflame the home fans with gestures towards the fans, but he couldn’t get away with any of the cheating he’s previously admitted he thinks makes him a clever player. He soon left the field. Nicolas Anelka was more warmly welcomed, which has always been the norm for returning Liverpool players, with only very few exceptions. Ex-Red and winner of many medals Sammy Lee is the assistant manager to Sam Allardyce, and he made a point of congratulating Steven Gerrard at the end. Add Liverpool-supporting local-lad Kevin Nolan’s name into the mix and there’s still a lot of good about Bolton, it’s just a pity that their manager seems intent on making them a modern-day Wimbledon.
Allardyce, still under investigation after allegations were made about him and his son by BBC’s Panorama, tried to act like he wasn’t too bothered at the defeat. Bolton managed only one shot all game, to Liverpool’s twenty, and Allardyce said that was all down to tiredness: “I'm surprised we had one shot on target. It was a game too many from our point of view.”
It’s an interesting point – Liverpool have played as many games this season (if not more) than Bolton, and both sides had the same number of games over Christmas. Rafa’s rotation policy is designed to make sure he’s got a full set of fully-fit players for as many games as possible, throughout the season; perhaps this was one of the first chances for outsiders to see this in action.
Allardyce admitted his side just weren’t anywhere near fit enough to deal with the Reds: “I don't think we've got anything like the sort of energy that was needed to continue to keep Liverpool out and finally we cracked. In possession we never posed any threat and because of that they finally wore us down.”