Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
K Davies 43'
Improved tactics and hard work lead to the right result. It's the first time this season that Liverpool have gone behind in a league match and went on to win. Had it not taken until January 1 to achieve that result, and had Liverpool played like this all season, both Liverpool and Hodgson wouldn't be in their respective situations.
The changes to the starting XI showed more ambition and absolutely contributed to this victory. But the catalyst was the enforced substitution made in the 21st minute. And that catalyst was Liverpool's usual catalyst: Steven Gerrard. Rested following Wednesday's match, Gerrard had to come on when Meireles pulled up. And the captain was at the heart of both goals, pulling the strings throughout. The Meireles/Lucas pairing had done well prior to the injury, and the Portuguese's exit looked to be a loss, but today was one of those days where Gerrard dragged the team to victory. Yet, obviously, it wouldn't have been possible without a complete team effort.
By halftime, it looked a calamitous result in keeping with this campaign's leitmotif. Liverpool had started off better, actually keeping possesdion, aided by the changes in defense; both Agger and Aurelio started moves by keeping the ball on the floor instead of losing possession time and time again with hoofs from deep. It brought Torres into the game far more than against Wolves, but the striker misfired throughout the first half. None the less, at least the intent was there. Maxi, returned to the starting XI, had Liverpool's two best chances, seeing a ball across the box cleared off the line and a header ping off the crossbar.
Misfortune soon reared its head. Having conceded far too many soft free kicks in their own half, Liverpool succumbed two minutes before the interval. Aurelio saw yellow for a foul on the flank, Taylor whipped in a free kick, and Kevin Davies out-jumped Johnson as Skrtel drifted away, another appalling breakdown of man-to-man marking. Soon after, Lucas missed an absolute sitter of an equalizer, unable to tap-in Kuyt's chipped cross. The kicks kept coming.
But Liverpool finally demonstrated resiliency. Torres smashed in an equalizer four minutes after the break with a gorgeous volley following a flowing move: Johnson to Ngog laid off to Gerrard, whose inch-perfect cross put the chance on a plate for Torres. Four minutes after that, a quick counter from Reina to Gerrard ended with the striker shooting just wide of the far post.
And Liverpool kept battling. Yes, the play broke down in the final third frequently, and Bolton had chances on the counter. Liverpool could have a had a penalty in the 68th when a prone Mark Davies handled the ball, but the situation could have been reversed in the 87th, when Lucas incidentally handled in Liverpool's box. Reina was forced into saves from Mark Davies and Klasnic, while the Croatian substitute also turned an effort wide after two crucial blocks by Liverpool's fullbacks.
But the battling, the increased tempo, and the far better morale finally paid off, and it was Liverpool's maligned substitute who won the game in injury time. Joe Cole replaced Ngog with 10 minutes to play, and his entrance was followed by increased Bolton pressure and the two of the three aforementioned chances. But in the second minute of injury time, Liverpool pushed and Gerrard delivered another excellent cross from the right, which bounced off a Bolton defender under pressure from Maxi at the back post for Cole to tap in from inches out. Any question of offside eliminated by the Bolton defender's touch, it was Cole's first league goal. He couldn't have picked a better time to score it.
Gerrard may have been man of the match, a tremendous performance yet an arguable fluke because of Meireles' unfortunate injury, but the pre-match changes set the tone. Agger's return couldn't have been more welcome – his desire to play the ball out pervaded the entire backline, obviously helped by Aurelio's similar predilection. The defense looked far steadier throughout, and it led to passing and moving instead of hoofing and moping.
Liverpool needed this win. Had previous performances and results not been so demonstrably poor, a draw wouldn't have been the worst result. Liverpool showed improvement and Bolton were once again difficult opposition. But three points were thoroughly necessary today. That they're coupled with Liverpool's first come-from-behind win in the league in more than a year and Liverpool's first late winner since these sides last met in October can only help matters.