Bolton 1 Gudjohnsen (pen) 59’
Liverpool 2 Sterling 86’, Coutinho 90+1’
A minor thigh strain meant Lucas Leiva was rested with an eye to Everton on the weekend, as was fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson. In their place, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard—for his 700th Liverpool appearance—came into the lineup in the double-pivot with a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup and Liverpool’s best chance of a trophy this season on the line. Whether it was down to those changes of the pressure of facing a replay against a side Liverpool should have dispatched at the first time of asking, the visitors got off to a sluggish, mistaken-prone start.
It may have taken a few minutes for Liverpool to settle, but when they did, the passing interplay of Sterling, Lallana, and Coutinho began to lead to chances—or at least half-chances. The first fell to Gerrard on the edge of the area, but a tame side-footed effort was handled easily by Andy Lonergan. And as Liverpool struggled to take advantage of their strong buildup play, Bolton began to claw their way back into the match with the help of a handful of threatening dead ball situations. The sum was a match that could easily have seen either side a goal or two up yet managed to remain scoreless heading into the half.
Liverpool were probably the better side on aggregate in the early going, and Raheem Sterling will feel unfortunate to have hit the crossbar mid-way through the first, but as has often been the case in Daniel Sturridge’s absence, the lack of a focal point in attack was clearly an issue. Too often, good moves were undone by the lack of a target making the run that was needed. The midfield, meanwhile, at times struggled to control the centre of the pitch and left space for Bolton’s attacks, but centre half Matt Mills being forced into the striker role for Bolton meant they had as little luck in front of goal as Liverpool.
Both sides started the second unchanged, and both continued to struggle with the same issues they’d had in the first. Liverpool created good breaks, had quality passing movements in the final third, but for all their work never looked especially like scoring, while in midfield they were often bullied by a side that looked even less likely to create a top quality chance. Eventually, though, it was Bolton’s ineffective attack that struck first, as Zach Clough tumbled over in the penalty area. There was little, if any, contact, but referee Roger East pointed to the spot and Gudjohnsen converted to give the hosts the lead.
Regardless of the referring error—and replays made clear it was an error—the entire sequence was an indictment of Liverpool’s midfield, which left the back line exposed all evening and showed no signs of improvement even after Jordan Henderson came on for the injured Adam Lallana and Gerrard was pushed forward. Rodgers soon tried making another change, bringing on Fabio Borini and moving Gerrard deep again, but it was the referee who made the biggest change to Liverpool’s chances with his second big call of the night, handing Neil Danns a second yellow for a wildly out of control, studs-up tackle.
Unlike his first big decision, it was the right call. It was followed up by Sturridge’s introduction as the visitors pushed for the equaliser. That equaliser was a long time coming, but in the 86th minute Emre Can—pushed into midfield late on as Liverpool switched to two at the back—lofted a brilliantly weighted pass over the Bolton defence to Sterling, who hammered the shot through Lonergan with five to play. Then, in the first minute of stoppage time, Coutinho curled a perfect effort from the edge of the area that crept in off the underside of the crossbar to give Liverpool the result that, on the whole, the probably deserved.
It took them a long time to get there, and they made it far harder for themselves than it had to be—and the officiating certainly didn’t help—but in the end it’s Liverpool through to the fifth round of the FA Cup, with a trip to Crystal Palace now on the cards and the dream of silverware still alive.