by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
Before saying sayonara to the Premiership, Liverpool had one outstanding task to take care of before they start their adventure to the other side of the World. The best sides outside of Europe await in Japan as Liverpool look to add the World Club Championship to the European Cup they already hold. It is a competition that some feel is an unwelcome distraction, a view that no doubt would have been given greater credence had Liverpool failed against Middlesbrough.
Having successfully secured first place in the Champions League group ahead of Chelsea without Alonso, Benitez recalled his play maker as he searched for three points. In an attacking lineup, Riise returned to left back with Kewell starting ahead of him in midfield. With Sissoko partnering Alonso in the centre of the field Gerrard was again asked to start on the right though he is often given license to roam. The improving pair of Crouch and Morientes once more led the line as Djibril Cisse cut a forlorn figure on the bench, a position that is becoming increasingly familiar for the expensive summer signing.
Liverpool opened as if they wanted to end the contest as quickly as possible. Within the first five minutes Gerrard had recorded three shots at goal, though only one was on target. Middlesbrough had stated with Boateng on the left clearly tasked with the job of keeping Gerrard quiet but it seemed not to be working. With Doriva also in the side, Boro were set up to restrict Liverpool first and foremost. For the next twenty minutes the game got lost in midfield as neither side could take control of the ball. Even Alonso was struggling as his passing lacked the accuracy Anfield has come to expect from him. With the ball changing hands often, the tempo of the game started to drop which suited Boro. A misguided header from Alonso nearly gifted Boro a chance but as has been the theme of Liverpool's defending in recent times, a team mate came in to clear up.
As the half started to drift towards an end Liverpool found their rhythm again as they took a position of dominance in the centre of the park. Morientes looped a header which forced Schwarzer to back pedal and push the ball smartly over the cross bar. Another ball into the cross, this time delivered from Finnan was headed back towards the centre of the area by Crouch. Sissoko, who had found himself on the edge of the box, moved onto the ball but with it bouncing too high to control he headed straight at the keeper.
Liverpool came even closer a little later on only to be once again denied by the resolute defending of Boro. They had shown little ambition going forward but had worked hard to make their defensive plan work. A ball into the box nearly allowed Morientes to score but Southgate denied him only for the ball to role to Crouch who was set to shoot only for Riggott to slide in and clear.
The second half kicked off with Liverpool again increasing the tempo. Pushing forward though they nearly conceded at the other end. Boateng played the ball in from the left wing to Rochemback who had been anonymous up until this point. The Brazilian showed a little of what he is capable of in playing a first time pass that cut through the Liverpool defence. It found Viduka unmarked and within shooting range and looking to the keepers left he slotted the ball the other way. Reina fell for the striker's trick in diving to his left but managed to flick his leg at the ball and deflected it out for a corner.
Whilst Liverpool pressed they were gaining little joy in the attacking third much to their frustration. Benitez eventually responded by withdrawing Crouch who had worked hard to gain aerial supremacy but had watched on helplessly as Boro won the majority of his knockdowns. In his place came Garcia which increased the mobility in the Liverpool side. His introduction proved a masterstroke as he played a key part in the opener shortly after joining the action. A corner for Liverpool saw Hyypia clash heads with Boateng which left the defender with a cut that required stitches. With Boateng able to continue, the Reds were temporarily playing a man down, yet they still pushed forward. Gerrard showed customary drive to win get onto the ball in the Boro half before Garcia took over and drove into the right side of the box. His lofted square ball looked set for Gerrard until the captain ducked under it, drawing the defence with him. In the space behind, Morientes brought the ball under control and carefully guided it past Schwarzer and into the bottom corner of the net.
Still a man short, Liverpool then saw their attempt at a club record nearly taken from them. Having kept clean sheets in nine consecutive games, they were hoping to add a tenth to match the record held by Kenny Dalglish's vintage. Boro came close to stopping the run though, with them launching a quick attack after Morrison appeared to pull back Kewell. The Aussie was enjoying an excellent afternoon as he was regularly involved in Liverpool's attacking play and had forced a good save from Schwarzer with a clever loft. However on this occasion his shirt was clearly pulled which resulted in him losing possession. Morrison taking the benefit of the referees decision drove forward before playing a one two with Yakubu. His low shot then forced Reina to save with his foot with the ball squirming underneath him but the keeper had done enough to force it wide of goal.
Hyypia then returned to the game, heavily bandaged and was given a hero's cheer when he headed a cross away soon after. With their full compliment of players back on the field, Liverpool went back to the task of securing the three points. A long ball forward from Finnan to Kewell seemed destined to be cleared by Quedrue but the ball was too high for the defender and his header went backwards. Taking a gamble, Morientes had run in behind the defender and with the ball landing in his path he waited for Schwarzer to close him down before lofting his shot over the keeper to score his second.
Having set out to defend for a draw, Boro found it increasingly difficult to get back into the game and Liverpool looked the more likely to add another goal to the scoreline. A sublime move between Gerrard, Morientes and Garcia opened up the defence but Schwarzer who had played well throughout had closed the angle down and blocked the shot. Liverpool had had a regular run on the Aussie keeper's goal, with Riise in particular coming close to a spectacular goal after volleying a Gerrard corner just over the crossbar. In the closing stages Boro lost Chris Riggott following his second booking, though it seemed a harsh decision even if his first booking was justified. Shortly after Hyypia made a similar foul to the one that had seen Riggott booked for the second time but there was no card this time. It wasn't Liverpool's concern though as they returned to second place in the table whilst continuing their impressive defensive form whilst once more looking a real threat at the other end. The reasons to feel confident continue to add up, with Morientes showing the goal scoring quality that he clearly has but hasn't shown consistently enough in a Red shirt. The side has now kept ten clean sheets and they would hope to add to it during the World Club Championship. If Liverpool can continue like this, the recent talk from the players of putting pressure on Chelsea will have to be believed.