The changes Liverpool made for its FA Cup game against Bolton Wanderers took it backward instead of forward.
Liverpool and Bolton played to a goalless draw Saturday at Anfield in the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Reds would have won the game comfortably by performing at their recent levels. But their form dipped in the face of an inspired and determined opponent, who deservedly reveled in the aftermath of a forgettable stalemate.
Liverpool played its best game of the season in Tuesday’s draw with Chelsea. The Reds rediscovered their groove but lost it again over the next three days. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’ necessary lineup changes must have been responsible for the drop in performance.
Glen Johnson, Javier Manquillo and Jose Enrique started on the back line and as wing-backs, respectively. While they deserve credit for helping Liverpool earn its third shutout in its last four games, blanking Bolton is no great feat. Johnson played all 90 minutes without major incident. Rodgers substituted Enrique at halftime and Manquillo after 67 minutes. Neither full-back had a positive influence on Liverpool’s attacking play. In fact, Manquillo had a glaring miss just three minutes before his removal.
Adam Lallana and Joe Allen returned to the starting lineup as midfielder. Lallana, who started his first game since suffering a thigh injury on New Year’s Day, struggled to combine with in-form attackers Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho in his 90-minute outing. Allen’s impact in 67 minutes of work was negligible.
Of the five returnees, only Lallana and Manquillo had started a game in 2015. Johnson and Allen had been out since Dec. 14. Enrique last started on Dec. 9. Their lengthy absences were evident from the start, as Bolton outplayed Liverpool for the first 15 minutes and was even with the Reds on balance of play for the rest of the first half. They (and other regulars) failed to match Bolton’s energy or meet the high-tempo passing and high-intensity pressing Liverpool recently has demonstrated.
Referee Kevin Friend also did Liverpool no favors. Friend should have awarded Lazar Markovic a penalty early in the second half. Friend also ignored the Kops’ howls when former Red Jay Spearing shouldered down Jordan Henderson in the 81st minute. Friend’s first decision was a bad call. His second was much less contentious.
The Liverpool visit didn’t faze Bolton, whose lineup included a number of players with Anfield and Premier League experience. Veterans Eidur Gudjohnsen and Emile Heskey, the subjects of much of the pre-game hype, led Bolton’s attack but but did little else of note. Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan stole the show, making highlight-reel saves look routine.
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The Chelsea draw felt like a win in some circles. The Bolton draw will feel like a loss in those same spheres. The mixed week shows that Liverpool’s revival is ongoing but likely won’t rocket forward any time soon. Saturday’s draw will spark questions about Liverpool’s depth of quality and quality of depth.
The outcomes of both Tuesday’s Capital One Cup (Football League Cup) second leg against Chelsea and next month’s replay against Bolton will determine the wisdom of Rodgers’ rotations. The Reds know they must be at their best when they visit Stamford Bridge. History and Saturday’s game will remind Liverpool that it must hit similar peaks when it takes on Bolton again in early February.
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Thumbnail photo via LiverpoolFC.com