Monday, January 2, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: January 3, 3:32 PM UK
Integration and irritation
He is the solo artist finally integrated in a band; Sam Allardyce, however, thinks it would be more appropriate if he were banned. For two years, it appeared that either Steven Gerrard played well or Liverpool played well, but rarely both (the second half in Istanbul being a notable exception).
Indeed, during Gerard Houllier's final season at Anfield, Gerrard excelled while his team-mates floundered on a weekly basis. Last season, the more sporadic, if devastating, nature of his contributions led to the theory that Xabi Alonso was more important; finally, however, a Liverpool side has been constructed around Gerrard but without a complete reliance on him.
If the Bolton boss has his way, they will have to survive without their talisman for three matches after the major talking point of an eventful draw.
For an hour, this was a reprise of the 2003-4 season, with Gerrard excelling to no avail. But in the final 30 minutes, it provided a reflection of the recent improvement of Rafael Benitez's side, the captain a catalyst in a spirited showing from the team to secure a point.
Benitez, however, felt it should have been three. Allardyce insisted Bolton merited a victory, highlighting four incidents; for him, too, Gerrard was involved in a defining moment. 'We've been treated poorly today in terms of the major decisions,' he complained. Two were what Allardyce termed 'technical issues' - a penalty appeal for a challenge by Jamie Carragher on Kevin Nolan, and an offside decision when Kevin Davies closed in on goal.
He was also adamant that Liverpool should have been reduced to nine men for 'Steven Gerrard stamping on Nolan and [Momo] Sissoko stamping on Diouf. They're clear and they're obvious.'
Each of his four allegations can be countered; 'stamp', however, is an exaggeration for Sissoko's supposed sin. And though Nolan ended up with imprints of Gerrard's studs in his chest, it appeared an accident. The Bolton skipper tumbled into his Liverpool counterpart's path after a push from Sissoko and the jumping Gerrard seemed unable to land elsewhere.
Benitez took the fifth amendment, claiming not to have seen it, but was unhappy about much else.
'You see players diving all the time. You cannot play your kind of football and it's difficult,' he said, obviously angry, though trying not to be drawn into comments about individual players or referee, Mark Clattenburg.
Without the decisions Allardyce believed they were entitled to, Bolton were deserving of their draw to deny Liverpool an 11th successive victory. The club record of Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Graeme Souness and the team of 1982 remains intact. But, while Allardyce's accusations will monopolise the headlines, it is rare that the end of a winning run can still provide so much cause for optimism and represent such a turnaround after an unpromising start.
In the first half, Liverpool's threat amounted to long-range shots by Dietmar Hamann and Djimi Traore, with a terrific 30-yard shot few deemed him capable of. In the second half, it was a different story, almost given its conclusion by Djibril Cisse, whose header flashed into the side-netting from Gerrard's late cross.
It was apt, too, then that while Liverpool's first equaliser was entirely Gerrard's work, their second was constructed without their captain.
On 66 minutes, Gerrard, in top gear, headed for the Bolton goal, confronted by Joey O'Brien. It was no contest, rookie right back felling marauding midfielder in the penalty box. Gerrard converted the resulting spot kick.
By then, he had more creative support. When naming his team, Benitez turned to his bigger players - Traore, Hamann and Sissoko - and left the more delicate duo of Alonso and Luis Garcia on the bench. Benitez's explanation was twofold: 'We had some players tired and we tried to use fresh legs. Sometimes you need to approach the game thinking about being physical.'
The tactic came at the cost of fluency, Liverpool looking disjointed while their game-plan was rather less relevant after gifting an early goal.
But after Benitez turned to his countrymen to replace Hamann and the ineffectual Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Garcia and Alonso combined for a wonderful equaliser. Alonso's cross-field ball was met by Garcia with a touch to enable him to skip inside Ricardo Gardner and followed by a low half-volley to beat Jussi Jaaskelainen at his near post.
A third Spaniard emerged with rather less credit. For much of this season, Jose Reina has seemed the best-paid spectator since Winston Bogarde left Chelsea. His few contributions, however, have merited praise, with the exception of one error at Birmingham. Until now.
The Spaniard was doubly culpable for Rahdi Jaidi's 10th-minute tap-in. Birmingham suggested crosses could be his undoing and, under a legitimate challenge by Gary Speed, he spilled a Stelios free kick. A mix-up with Sami Hyypia ensued, and, from four yards, Jaidi capitalised.
At atmosphere of escalating tension enveloped much of the rest of a stop-start first half. It provided another example of Bolton's ability to rile more exalted opponents and evidence of Liverpool's frustration.
Liverpool's grievances centred on El-Hadji Diouf, agent provocateur, irritant-in-chief and, it seemed until Garcia's intervention, match-winner.
He bundled home a cross from Davies, whom appeared to be in an offside position - a point left unmentioned by the otherwise aggrieved Bolton manager.
Nevertheless, it was another example of the immutable 'law of the ex', made still more predictable by the messy break-up between Diouf and Liverpool. 'Dioufy's got to address a side of his game,' admitted Allardyce. He would say the same of Gerrard, too.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard, though Gary Speed, who scarcely wasted a pass in the midfield, also merits a mention.
MOAN OF THE MATCH: El-Hadji Diouf's histrionics, as unnecessary as they were predictable. He played well, too, but that is not the abiding image of the Bolton winger. 'In England, everyone knows him,' said Benitez succinctly.
BOLTON VERDICT: No respecters of reputation, as they showed again. They seem to prefer playing the bigger teams and certainly succeed at getting under their skin.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They were a better team after the introduction of Garcia and Alonso. Harry Kewell and Peter Crouch were both beneficiaries of their arrival, but the experiment with Florent Sinama-Pongolle failed.
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