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Football: Reds over the worst; LIVERPOOL...........2 Diouf 44, Owen 67 BOLTON................0.

Byline: Simon Mullock

LIVERPOOL finally brought an end to their Anfield depression, but once again Gerard Houllier was left trying to argue that the ends justify the means.

The Frenchman's favourite soundbites praising his team's determination and mental strength again came to the fore after goals by El-Hadji Diouf and Michael Owen had at last given the Kop something to celebrate in the Premiership.

But the bottom line is that it won't be until Houllier is talking up brilliance alongside bottle or inspiration as well as perspiration that the Merseysiders will really be able to challenge the likes of Arsenal or Manchester United for the trophies that really matter.

As with last week's Worthington Cup Final triumph over United, the Reds were left relying on resolute defence at one end and the quality of Owen - in rich scoring vein again - at the other.

It was enough to ensure a first League win at Anfield since early November. Now, Liverpool are up to sixth place in the table and within touching distance of the Champions League berth that Houllier so desperately craves.

But the win should not be allowed to disguise the fact that for long periods Liverpool were very much second best against a team fighting relegation, particularly in the first half.

Houllier said: "We have beaten a good team in Bolton. We knew it would be difficult for us because they have so many great individuals.

"They always do well against the teams at the top of the League. They beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and were unlucky only to draw with them at home. They lost to a last-minute goal at Arsenal and have had good results against Chelsea and Newcastle.

"It was hard for us and I expected that because I knew there would be a reaction after the Cup final last week.

"What pleased me was that we were mentally strong, focused, determined, and I felt we came out on top tactically.

"It was a pivotal game for us today and I am delighted we have won."

Effective it certainly was, but pretty it will never be as long as Liverpool rely on these smash-and-grab methods.

The truth is that Houllier doesn't possess a single player with the technique or imagination of Wanderers pair Youri Djorkaeff or Jay-Jay Okocha.

Certainly if Owen had either the Frenchman or Nigerian operating alongside him, he wouldn't be left to live off the long-ball scraps that have become his staple diet.

Maybe there was a reaction to last week's events at the Millennium Stadium and Liverpool also have the small matter of a first Battle of Britain meeting with Celtic in the UEFA Cup this week to look forward to.

But that doesn't explain fully why Bolton were allowed to dominate for long spells, especially in the first half.

Unfortunately, Sam Allardyce has not been able to conjure up a natural goalscorer from his bag of bargain buys.

The Bolton boss admitted: "We just didn't do enough in the final third of the pitch. That was why we lost the game.

"We had as much possession as Liverpool, but what disappointed me most was that we didn't really get a shot on target.

"The difference between the two teams was simple - Liverpool took their chances and we didn't take ours. That's what the game is all about."

There was no sign of the Worthington Cup, with Houllier anxious that memories from south Wales should not hinder his push for the most prized places in the Premiership.

He explained: "It was never my intention for us to show the cup. I didn't want us distracted, I wanted us to be totally focused. If you go around parading trophies then it can work against you."

Yet from the moment Djimi Traore - in for the injured Stephane Henchoz - produced a brilliant early interception to cut out an Okocha pass just as it arrowed towards Djorkaeff, it was Bolton who grew in belief.

Liverpool escaped again when Bernard Mendy outpaced John Arne Riise down the right only to see his cross bounce off Sami Hyypia and across the six-yard box to safety.

And when Okocha drew a crowd of Liverpool defenders towards him with three outrageous dummies, he switched the ball square for Ricardo Gardner to fire in a shot that was bravely blocked by Jamie Carragher.

Liverpool's frustration was growing with every Bolton attack and even Owen was given a stern talking to by referee Graham Barber for disputing a decision.

Mendy again showed Riise a clean pair of heels to try and angled shot that was turned over by Jerzy Dudek at full stretch.

At the other end, Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen was a virtual spectator, but he should have been picking the ball out of the net when Liverpool threatened for the first time after 35 minutes.

A short corner was worked back for Didi Hamann to float over a cross that was met by the leaping Hyypia, only for the unmarked Finn to direct his header wide from eight yards.

Moments later Hyypia almost handed Bolton the lead when his weak clearance fell to Bolton new boy Salva Ballestra and he teed up Gardner only for the Jamaican to slice his shot horribly wide from 15 yards with his unfavoured right foot.

At least the Reds were starting to look more threatening themselves and only the brilliance of Jaaskelainen kept them out when Mendy's woeful back pass put his keeper in trouble. Owen intercepted only to have the ball whipped off his toes by the Bolton keeper, who then recovered to block Vladimir Smicer's powerful follow up.

But the home side were ahead moments before the break when Owen sneaked past Simon Charlton and clipped a cross over the diving Jaaskelainen for Diouf to head home.

Bolton claimed the Senegal striker was offside, but perhaps it was more a realisation that Liverpool now really had something to defend that led to a posse of players surrounding the referee.

Allardyce added: "The boys felt it was offside, but I have seen it twice on television and it was the right decision."

The goal gave Liverpool a greater degree of control after the break, although Ivan Campo would have changed the mood had he not guided an 18-yard shot over with time and space to spare.

Steven Gerrard, strangely subdued throughout, did produce one burst from midfield to unlash a rocket drive that flew just wide.

When the Merseysiders did score again in the 67th minute, the home side could start thinking about this week's Battle of Britain with Celtic.

Gudni Bergsson surrendered possession to Danny Murphy, who fed Diouf and then Owen

sped into the middle to slide home the return cross after his strike-partner had outstripped Charlton. Murphy almost made it a really miserable day for the Trotters with a 30- yard free kick that dipped over. And it needed another Jaaskelainen save to prevent Owen from putting the finishing touch to a Riise cross in the dying stages. That would have been cruel on Bolton and would have perhaps left Liverpool with a few delusions of their own.

LIVERPOOL BOLTON

3 Shots on target 1

6 Shots off target 10

0 Shots blocked 3

3 Corners 3

15 Fouls conceded 13

3 Offsides 2

0 Yellow cards 3

0 Red cards 0

matchVERDICTS

MAN OF THE MATCHivanCAMPOThe Spaniard has taken some stick since arriving from Real Madrid. But, given a holding role in midfield by Sam Allardyce, he gave Bolton a platform that enabled them to dominate for long periods. Campo isn't exactly built for the demands of the Premiership but his ability to read the game shone through.RAISE YOUR GAMERICARDO GARDNER The Bolton midfielder has plenty of skill, but too often lets himself down with his final ball or shot.PLAYER RATINGSLIVERPOOL: Dudek 7, Carragher 6, Traore 7, Hyypia 6, Riise 6, Murphy 6, Gerrard 6 (Diao 6), Hamann 6, Smicer 6 (Cheyrou 6), Owen 7, Diouf 6.

BOLTON: Jaaskelainen 7, N'Gotty 6, Bergsson 7, Laville 6, Charlton 6, Mendy 6 (Andre 6), Okocha 7, CAMPO 8, Gardner 6, Djorkaeff 7, Ballesta 6 (Nolan 6).VIEW FROM THE DUGOUTGERARD HOULLIER This was a pivotal moment for us today. We have beaten a good team. It was so important to win if we are to get into the Champions League. Bolton made it tough but I thought we were mentally strong and focused.SAM ALLARDYCE We didn't do enough in the final third and that's what disappointed me most. In terms of possession we probably had as much as them, but we hardly had a shot on target. Liverpool took their chances and we didn't.VIEW FROM THE TERRACELIVERPOOL Dave Robinson of Aintree said: "We never got going today but Michael Owen looks back to his best and when he is in this kind of goalscoring form we can beat anyone. But we had better be sharper in Glasgow next week."

BOLTON Pete Walker of Little Lever said: "It's looking grim now. I don't know how the ref could give their first goal but that has been happening to us all season. We never looked like scoring."REFEREEG BARBER Impressive performance - Bolton's complaints about the first goal were aimed at the referee's assistant...........7ATTENDANCE: 41,462

CAPTION(S):

G-OWEN FOR GLORY: Michael Owen steers his shot beyond the despairing Jussi Jaaskelainen to make the points safe for Gerard Houllier's men at Anfield
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 9, 2003
Words:1575
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