Barclays Premier League – January 1st 2011
Liverpool 2 Bolton 1
Liverpool played host to Bolton for the first game of the New Year and the 2-1 win – thanks largely to a moment of brilliance from Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – gave Liverpool supporters something to smile about. As long as they didn’t look too closely at the league table that is.
Gerrard was only on the field because of an injury to Meireles. The captain was on the bench at kick-off after – in manager Roy Hodgson’s words – he’d been left “extremely tired” from playing the full 90 minutes of his first game back from injury on Wednesday.
That tiredness meant Liverpool started with Dirk Kuyt on the right instead of out of position on the left, with Meireles starting in his natural role in the middle of the park. Gerrard was a straight swap for Meireles so nobody had to move out of position when the change was made.
Two other changes gave Liverpool a different look to Wednesday; Konchesky was replaced by Aurelio and Daniel Agger was back in the side in place of Kyrgiakos.
Kevin Davies opened the scoring for Bolton shortly before half-time, scoring against his former manager. Davies had been signed by Hodgson at Blackburn, the club he was sacked by as they headed towards relegation. Hodgson said recently of the Bolton striker: “We weren’t doing well and I probably wasn’t in a position mentally to give him the help he needed. I just expected him to do it for me and I don’t think I did enough for him.”
Liverpool’s equaliser came after Gerrard played a perfect ball to Torres, which Torres despatched perfectly into the back of the net before picking it up as he celebrated in front of the bouncing Kop. It served as a reminder of how much Liverpool have come to rely on the two players.
Liverpool continued to attack and Bolton continued to hang on. As the minutes ticked down it looked like it was going to end in a draw.
But two minutes into injury time Liverpool got what some will say was a lucky break, Joe Cole scoring his first league goal since joining the Reds in summer amidst claims of offside. The goal stood because the officials ruled the ball had touched a Bolton defender before reaching Cole. Liverpool had all three points in the bag. It was a huge relief to players and fans alike.
Afterwards Hodgson was asked what his overriding emotion was following the end to the game: “Great satisfaction and pride in the performance, that was the overriding feeling today.”
He also seemed determined to get across exactly what he now felt was to blame for the shameful defeat to bottom club Wolves on Wednesday: “I was very anxious today that the team would put behind them the counter-performance of Wednesday night when we didn’t play anywhere near what we’re capable of playing and today was quite the reverse.
“I thought we were excellent from the first minute, I thought we played some excellent football and I think I might have made an error in the sense that I dismissed any ideas that the three week break would affect us in any way.”
Although it’s good to hear him actually admit to making an error (well, admitting he might have made an error), in the end it was just another way of getting his excuses in.
“I was trying to suggest, on a positive note, that ‘No! The lads are training well, we’re looking sharp, I’m sure we’ll be okay,’ but I think I actually underestimated for the players what a three-week lay-off does and today I think the game on Wednesday stood us in good stead to produce the performance we produced today.”
Strange to hear Roy blame that defeat on the two-and-a-half week break from football just ten days after he said this: “I don’t understand the opposition to the winter break. I am a fan of a winter break because I think people need a break from the intensity that English football brings.
“The beauty of the winter break is that you have this nice flow to your season. When players are just beginning to get a little bit tired and everything is beginning to weigh down on them you get a month to free your head.
“I think that way you go into the second half of the season so much more refreshed and I think that can only be of benefit to the players and the quality of football.”
Back to today’s game and although the Reds had gone in a goal down at the break he denied he faced any challenges with his half-time team talk: “No, not at all, because we played so well.
“I mean it was an unfair half-time result, you know, on the basis of what had gone on on the field of play, if any team should have come in leading 1-0 it should have been us.
“To come in 0-1 it seems to be one of those moments where you’ve taken a slap in the face that you don’t deserve but my message to the players was, quite simply, that the way we were playing had got to continue; you’ve got to keep believing, you’ve got to keep faith in yourselves quite frankly, and go out and do that performance again in the second half.
“In fact I thought they topped it, because I think the second half performance, if anything, was better than the first half.”
Roy messed up in a big way after that defeat on Wednesday with comments that suggested he was unhappy with the Liverpool fans, making a distinction between fan and supporter and claiming he’d not had enough support.
He was to apologise for those words (some reports claiming the apology was made under orders from the owners) the next day but the damage had already been done. He did find time to praise the supporters today however: “The other factor today which really pleased me was the enormous support we got from the crowd, they were very unhappy with us on Wednesday night and quite rightly so, you know, they expected us to play like today and beat Wolves and we didn’t, we played very poorly and today for them to come out again and forgive that performance and get right behind the team as they did was fantastic and my overriding feeling is one of great satisfaction that we’ve given them, at last, something they deserve for their support.”
Roy may want to put that little bottle of champagne back in the mini-bar; there shouldn’t be “great satisfaction” in beating a side that was so short on players it was only able to name four out of the permitted seven subs, a club that hadn’t won at Anfield since the fifties. It was a better performance, Owen Coyle has deservedly drawn a lot of praise for the improvements he’s made to the Bolton side, but Liverpool shouldn’t have been relying on a moment of brilliance from two of the club’s best players and a late, possibly offside, goal to get the three points.
New manager sought
It emerged yesterday that Fenway Sports Group (FSG, formerly NESV) were now actively seeking a new manager and that the change would be made as soon as a suitable replacement was available. Hodgson was asked how he felt about the stories in the media about him: “Nothing you can do about it. I mean, the fact is that my job is to try and produce good performances and winning performances from the team.
“It’s not about me it’s about Liverpool Football Club, it’s about the players of Liverpool Football Club and the speculation, I think, is rife all over, I don’t think anybody is immune from speculation these days and the higher the level you work at, the more speculation there will be.”
It sounded like Roy might be admitting, finally, that he’d underperformed in his role at Anfield and was ready to take responsibility for the slide he’d overseen during his tenure. But his automatic defence system came in and with it the suggestion that Liverpool’s problems weren’t down to him and that he’d just taken on something that was already broken: “We’ve not had a good season, that’s perfectly obvious, and the fans have been treated, unfortunately, to some disappointing performances, not just during the last six months but even before that.”
At some point earlier in the season he asked for fans to judge him after ten games. When the tenth game arrived and Liverpool were still doing far worse than they had in most fans’ living memories, the judgement didn’t look too good as far as the fans were concerned.
But Roy’s world isn’t our world. We want to see our team challenging for the title and certainly finishing in the top four, Roy has his own ideas: “I said after seven games when we were in the bottom three that if we can finish after 19 games, at the halfway stage, in the top half of the table then that will at least give us a platform.”
This is the kind of talk that means there’s a platform waiting at Lime Street for Roy, one that will allow him to board the train to Euston with his suitcase and in turn allow Liverpool to move forward.
Especially when they hear these words when looking at the league table: “That’s where we are and what’s more we’ve got two games in hand on most of the teams around us, so things are not as bleak or bad as maybe they looked on Wednesday night.” In fact Liverpool haven’t any games in hand on 19th placed Birmingham, who are just six points below Liverpool. And the team just below Liverpool, level on points, is newly-promoted Blackpool – and it’s Blackpool with a game in hand on Liverpool.
Looking up to fourth placed Spurs the Reds do have a game in hand – but are a rather worrying 11 points behind. And there’s no game in hand on the league-leaders, who are now 16 points above Liverpool. That gap is just nine points short of what Liverpool have racked up all season.
A happy man
Maybe Roy wasn’t looking at the league table in the same way: “Today I shall go home a happy man,” he said, “because the players certainly showed tonight where their allegiances lie and if we can keep producing performances like that, I think the season could end in a much happier way than it started.”
Not that a draw – at home to that depleted Bolton side – would have been a disappointing result for the former Fulham boss: “I am extra satisfied we got the winning goal but even at 1-1 I wouldn’t have been in any way dejected because I think today we put Wednesday’s game well and truly behind us.”
Speaking in another interview Roy claimed that the owners sympathised with him: “I spoke to the owners and they wished me good luck and sympathised with the frustration I must have been feeling after Wednesday night.”
But did he have their support? “I guess so,” he guessed.
Understandably uncomfortable with the question he went on: “It is not about me. I am very pleased and honoured to have this job. It is about Liverpool Football Club and performances so I don’t take the speculation seriously of course.”
He might be well advised to take it seriously.
In the meantime he’s decided to blame the press for creating his negative press, rather than accepting that they’re just – finally – reporting the negativity that has been obvious to supporters throughout the season. He said: “I shall probably have to learn to accept I shall get a lot of brickbats. I take enough negativity from you guys [the press], today I am going to be quite blunt and I am not interested in anything negative.
“Had we won on Wednesday night you would now be asking me about the Champions League but because we didn’t win on Wednesday I am asked about the negativity which, to be honest, is being created here in this room.”
Talking as if the press are finding negativity that isn’t there suggests he has no plans to deal with the true causes. In fact he’s probably going to just try to ignore it: “That [negativity] is something I have to live with but it doesn’t affect me in my job because my job is to make certain the performance of the team today was the performance you saw.
“I am going to be satisfied the team has given the performance I want, they want and the fans want and a happy evening is ahead.” Maybe that bottle of champagne won’t survive the night after all.
With it now quite clear that his days are numbered there is going to be more speculation that his players are underperforming because their manager has lost their respect. Roy denies that’s happened yet: “I know when players are behind the club and their manager and when they are not and anyone who seriously suggests, after watching us for six months, that there is a problem on this front is being dishonest.”
If FSG are going to take their time finding the right manager they really need to spend some money on getting Roy trained to deal better with the media and with the public.
Next up for Liverpool is a visit to Blackburn on Wednesday, the club who recently sacked Real Madrid hopeful Sam Allardyce (his hope, not theirs), the side who were hammered 3-0 against Sunderland today. After that it’s the FA Cup 3rd round against Manchester United as the games start to come thick and fast. At least Roy won’t have to worry about players having had too much resting time.