Bolton Wanderers climbed out of the bottom three with one of the most improbable results of their season, surprising not only Liverpool but possibly some of their own supporters with the quality of their football and the neatness of their execution.
Liverpool were never allowed to settle, conceded early in both halves, and did not display too much appetite for getting back into the game. Where Bolton have been hiding this poise and control all season is a mystery, but with David Ngog effortlessly outshining his £35m replacement in the Liverpool ranks and Mark Davies having his second excellent game in eight days, the result was never in doubt.
"Sometimes you have to ride your luck against teams like Liverpool, but not today," Owen Coyle said. "We needed a win but we got more than that, we played to a very high standard and showed we believe in what we are doing."
Kenny Dalglish could not even pretend to be proud of his players and did not even try. "I don't think our approach was correct," the Liverpool manager said. "I think some of our players thought they could just turn up and win and they got taught a lesson. Bolton played much better than we did."
Looking for only their second home win of the season, Bolton got off to a better start than they could ever have imagined, with Mark Davies putting them in front after four minutes from the first attack of the game. Ngog's clever flick left Martin Skrtel out of position and powerless to do anything about Davies's dart into the area. The defender thought better of a tackle from behind as he trailed in Davies's wake, leaving the Bolton midfielder free to carry the ball almost to the penalty spot before poking a low shot past Pepe Reina for only his third Premier League goal in three seasons at the club.
It almost got even better for the home side four minutes later, when Chris Eagles dispossessed José Enrique on the Bolton right and held off defenders to run all the way along the goal line, yet with all the hard work seemingly done his final ball rolled harmlessly across the face of goal, with Ngog unable to get a decisive touch. Liverpool, who had Charlie Adam and Steven Gerrard at the rear of midfield, started with Jordan Henderson on the right wing. Stewart Downing had to watch from the bench, for all Dalglish's insistence that his £20m signing from Aston Villa was a better player than he had initially realised. At least Henderson was able to produce Liverpool's first shot of any note, bringing a comfortable save from Adam Bogdan with a drive from long range.
Bolton survived a scare after half an hour when Adam's free-kick hit Zat Knight on the backside in the area, with neither Andy Carroll nor Maxi Rodríguez able to take advantage of the loose ball. Liverpool were left regretting their hesitancy when the home side swept straight down the field to score a second with a superbly incisive attack. Nigel Reo-Coker has never scored at the Reebok before, but you would never have guessed from the confident manner in which he started and completed the move that put Bolton two up. Releasing the ball towards Eagles on the right, Reo-Coker moved smartly into the area to accept the return, and was not even fazed when the winger decided to chip the ball in his direction rather than roll a pass along the floor. Reo-Coker simply took one touch to control the ball and a second to bury a shot beyond the advancing Reina.
Liverpool did not seem to know what had hit them and could hardly have been expecting such finesse from a team in the bottom three, yet to their credit they pulled a goal back before half-time. Carroll had not done an awful lot to impress in front of goal but his header forward from the halfway line perfectly bisected Bolton's central defenders and allowed Craig Bellamy to run free, the Welshman's pace doping the rest and leaving Bogdan little hope of reaching the ball first.
That should have been enough action for a lively and entertaining first half, though there was still time for Martin Petrov to bring a flying save by Reina from a stoppage-time free-kick, after the impressive Ngog had been fouled by Adam. Reo-Coker resumed an old argument with Bellamy as the teams left the pitch at the interval, then apparently turned on Knight when the centre-half attempted to intervene.
If Liverpool thought they were getting back into the game, they were disabused of the notion five minutes into the second half. Bolton were by far the more positive side straight from the restart, with Ngog holding the ball well and Eagles again providing a valuable outlet on the right, though it was from a corner won on the left that they increased their lead. Petrov sent over a deep one, for David Wheater to rise above Skrtel at the far post and nod down for Gretar Steinsson to volley home from close to the penalty spot. Bolton players had been first to the ball both times, with Steinsson beating Daniel Agger to the knockdown, and Dalglish cannot have been happy with the marking at a set piece.
He sent on Downing and Dirk Kuyt for the last quarter of the game, to disappointingly little effect. Carroll produced an air shot when Downing managed a cut-back from the left and the closest Liverpool came to scoring was when Agger let fly from 30 yards out and grazed the top of Bogdan's bar.
Bellamy brought a save from the Bolton goalkeeper though again the shot was from outside the area, and by the end of the game, even Liverpool's passing in midfield was ragged and directionless. Bolton's underrated Mark Davies was adjudged man of the match, though in truth this was a day when everyone in white had a game to remember. It was also a day that everyone in red will spend a long time trying to forget.