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Jan 1, 2011

Cole strike delays the inevitable

When a team comes from behind to win in a rousing finale, when one substitute makes two goals and another scores a winner, when a side provides evidence of spirit and quality, the natural inclination is to praise the manager. In his time at Anfield, however, Roy Hodgson may be misunderstood but the damning conclusion is that they prospered despite him, not because of him.

• Liverpool 2-1 Bolton
• Premier League gallery Photo Gallery

One of his recruits and his replacements, Joe Cole, got the 93rd-minute winner that may buy Hodgson a stay of execution, but his reign as Liverpool manager is surely nearing its end. Their second-half excellence only served to highlight their first-half impotence and, in turn, illustrate why this team should be faring better.

Because if 2010 was a year of two halves for Hodgson, 2011 began with a game of two halves. The LMA's reigning manager of the year was the focal point in an awful 45 minutes. His tenure might have been prolonged by a coruscating finale. The problem is that, rather than validating Hodgson's regime, it seemed to condemn him.

The leadership Liverpool got, and required, came from Steven Gerrard, the substitute marauding magnificently as a glorious anarchy prevailed. Rather than the safety-first football Hodgson espouses, the two bands of four were disrupted with Lucas popping up on the left wing and in the penalty area, Gerrard rampaging across the pitch and Glen Johnson showing that, for all his defensive deficiencies, he remains a fine attacking full back. In the first half, Liverpool seemed to play for a 0-0 draw; in the second, they played like there was no tomorrow.

It brought two goals, one classily and one controversially. The first was the finest. Gerrard's through pass was curled with precision into the path of Fernando Torres. His volley was struck clinically and beautifully, giving Jussi Jaaskelainen no chance.

An onslaught followed in which Gerrard and Torres came close with similarly stylish volleys and the striker, with a razor-sharp solo run culminating in a shot that arrowed past the post, threatened. The winner came from a less regular source, Cole delivering his first league goal of his time at Anfield. It was poached from close range when Maxi Rodriguez met Gerrard's cross with a volley that may well have gone in anyway. "The players are adamant Joe Cole was offside," said Bolton manager Owen Coyle.

Hodgson cared not. "Even if you win to a controversial goal, I don't think we should be in any way apologising for it and anyone who begrudges us it is a very churlish person," he said. "I know when players are behind the club and behind their manager and I know when they're not. Anyone who seriously suggests after watching us play in this six months that there are any problems is being dishonest."

It is his interpretation and, in a week where his comments have been misconstrued, in his opinion, and brought a public apology to fans, there were a couple more questionable assertions. A belief Liverpool "dominated" the 90 minutes rather ignored the first 45 which brought Bolton the lead when Kevin Davies headed in Matt Taylor's free kick having lost Johnson. Meanwhile, Hodgson's suggestion that, because of the performance, he would have been satisfied with a draw reinforced the theory that he lacks the ambition the club requires. A multilingual coach continues to have problems with communication.

But while Hodgson praised Torres - "I think we will see Fernando in that type of form for the rest of the season. Today I saw a player who was world class" - gallows humour has set in among some Liverpool supporters. They used statistics mockingly: unbeaten in 2011, level on points with Blackpool, only five behind Sunderland. They are not blinded to the club's predicament and yet, when Gerrard and Torres excel, it illustrates why Liverpool are capable of so much more.

For many, the reason they don't produce it is Hodgson. This time, there were no chants calling for his dismissal. Perhaps supporters are signing the online petition instead; perhaps they were carried away by the stirring comeback; perhaps they merely believe the decision has been made.

As it is, a lowest league crowd since 2004 suggested the public are losing interest in Hodgson's Liverpool. With a plausible caretaker-manager in Kenny Dalglish, who used to rouse the Kop as Gerrard does now, he seems a dead man walking. But he had a rare smile at the end.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - Just as he did against Napoli, Gerrard came off the bench to galvanise a team. Left among the substitutes after playing the full 90 minutes against Wolves, Gerrard provided another virtuoso display.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The first half was a continuation of the Wolves game, the second a throwback to their inspired pursuit of the title in the final weeks of the 2008-09 season. Besides a reminder of the prowess of Torres and Gerrard, it showed what can happen when Liverpool release the handbrake and play more positively. There was more balance with Rodriguez restored to the team and Kuyt back on the right and more urgency when Gerrard replaced the injured Meireles. Hodgson's critics may note that, of signings, Christian Poulsen was an unused substitute again and Paul Konchesky didn't even make the bench.

BOLTON VERDICT: A team that could only name four substitutes can count themselves unfortunate to have lost after a spirited effort. Coyle's squad is so stretched that arrivals seem a necessity in January. But despite suffering back-to-back defeats, they are still in seventh place and above Liverpool.

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