HAD been expected that an improving Middlesbrough side might seriously examine the championship credentials of a Liverpool team just back from a hard-earned Champions League point in Rome.
In the event, it was something of a no-contest, Liverpool stealing into a two-goal lead before half-time and then switching to cruise control.
Having won the previous week at Derby without playing well, here they won without seriously extending themselves.
It put them six points clear of Arsenal who, along with Leeds and Newcastle, their other nearest rivals, were not in action yesterday. But perhaps the most important statistic was the 11-point margin and a game in hand over Manchester United, thanks to the champions' home defeat.
It might be too soon to talk of titles and an end to their 12-year championship drought, but Liverpool are certainly in good cheer as the festive season approaches. Inevitably, it was Michael Owen who set them on the way to their eighth win in 11 games under caretaker manager Phil Thompson with his 99th goal in front of the Kop, an excellent 28th-minute strike.
When Patrik Berger, who assisted in the goal, added a second in first-half injury time a 43,000 crowd might just as well have gone off and done some Christmas shopping for all the interest the second half held.
True, Middlesbrough were not helped by an injury to goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, but there was never much chance of them maintaining their recent mini-run which had seen them go 271 minutes without conceding a goal prior to this game. Paul Ince returned from suspension to face his old team-mates but he was an anonymous figure. It probably needed the injured Steven Gerrard around to provoke him into action.
Next up for Middlesbrough it's Steve McClaren's old club, Manchester United, who on yesterday's evidence should turn out to be a lot more accommodating.
The greatest danger to Middlesbrough in the early stages was that they might finish the game without a full team. They came into it still without their goalkeeper Schwarzer, who injured his groin playing for Australia in their recent World Cup play-off against Uruguay, and after 16 minutes found themselves having to call on deputy No 2.
Mark Crossley had not had a great deal to do other than save a routine shot from Danny Murphy, who had manoeuvred himself neatly into space after the move looked like breaking down following a rarity from Jari Litmanen - an inaccurately weighted cross - had left Gary McAllister with too much to do.
Owen, during this time, had been studiously warming his troublesome hamstrings on this crisp afternoon with a little activity on Liverpool's left flank.
When he played in a menacing cross it developed into a 50-50 ball between McAllister and Crossley for which the Middlesbrough goalkeeper bravely dived at the Scottish midfielder's feet.
It was obvious from the urgency with which McAllister signalled to the bench that all was not well with the Boro keeper and Crossley, after a three-minute delay, was carried off to be replaced by Marlon Beresford, the former Burnley goalkeeper.
Barely two minutes had passed when another Middlesbrough player was laid low. Berger must have hit the ball with some force because his shot struck Colin Cooper and rebounded against Jonathan Greening, almost knocking the former Manchester United player unconscious, which said a lot for the toughness of Cooper. Fortunately, he was able to continue.
Suitably knocked from pillar to post, it was perhaps inevitable that Middlesbrough would sooner or later fall behind and after 27 minutes they did so. There had been no danger to the Liverpool goal until Murphy ventured to go dribbling in his own penalty area.
Fortunately for the new England cap, he is invested with considerable self-confidence these days and he played himself out of trouble with a ball up to McAllister, who in turn played it on to Berger. The Czech Republic midfielder in turn laid off a quite exquisite short pass into the path of Owen, now patrolling the more familiar central area, for the England hero to smash home his 20th goal in 20 games in all competitions this season.
The game as a contest was virtually over in added-on time in the first half when Robbie Mustoe lost possession to Litmanen and McAllister crossed for Berger to score with an emphatic finish after he had first failed to control the ball.
A double substitution by Middlesbrough at half-time, in which Hamilton Ricard and Mark Wilson came on for Szilard Nemeth and Allan Johnston, did nothing to change the pattern of the game and Liverpool remained on the offensive until losing interest late in the game.
By the time Gerard Houllier returns to pick up the reins in the new year much of the hard work, thankfully, may have been done, although fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger can probably be relied upon to ensure that there is still a championship to be won whether or not United's race is run.
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