A FINE drive from John Arne Riise - one of those unfortunate players who, to quote Phil Thompson, will be spending the summer in Disneyland - procured Liverpool's 11th win in 17 away matches in the Premiership.
Emile Heskey, bound for Japan with England, had already struck, but the young Norwegian's supplement was needed because in the closing minutes Middlesbrough were finally to obtain the goal their contribution merited.
The scorer was Gareth Southgate, another Englishman who can expect to be spared the horrors of Mickey Mouse and company when the domestic season is over, but the significance of his header was merely that it obliged Jerzy Dudek to pick the ball from an alien net. Wherever Liverpool have been of late - Leeds, Ipswich, Fulham or Barcelona - they have remained intact. It should be added, however, that on every occasion their defence performed more creditably than here. In other words, they made a few mistakes.
That was about the extent of it. Middlesbrough, instead of being spoon-fed goals as by Everton in the FA Cup the previous weekend, still had the problem of converting first-half supremacy into a platform for victory over the other Merseyside club and could not do so. It was only their second defeat in 13 matches and Steve McClaren, their able manager, remarked: "We've played a lot worse and won." He especially praised Paul Ince, once of Anfield, whose midfield dynamism had indeed belied his 34 years.
Thompson, in one of his last post-match press conferences before handing such chores back to Gerard Houllier, said: "I'm not going to be daft and pretend we played magnificently, but I've been with this group of players long enough to know that, if things are not going right and you have to dig deep to get a result, there's none better in the Premiership."
Broadly, that rang true. But on this day everything came down to quality of finishing.
You nevertheless had to feel sorry for Middlesbrough. For 33 minutes McClaren's team held sway with emphasis and even the odd semblance of flourish, working feverishly and carving chances cleverly enough to have the Riverside throbbing with appreciation - and all they had to show for it was a deficit.
Much of their creativity had flowed from Benito Carbone. The little Italian, generally operating between the midfield and the lone striker, Alen Boksic, twisted and probed to such good effect that both Stephane Henchoz and Didi Hamann were cautioned for upending him.
A Liverpool midfield initially lacking Steven Gerrard, whose sly kick at a prone Rivaldo had been the least admirable feature of the midweek draw in Barcelona, struggled to cope at times. Meanwhile the defence gave Franck Queudrue a free header from a corner; luckily for them, Dudek was in the way. Amazingly, they were to do it again in the second half, when Vladimir Smicer cleared Queudrue's better effort off the line.
Earlier Robbie Mustoe had enabled Boksic to drag the ball back for Luke Wilkshire and, in trying to keep his shot low, the young Australian succeeded only in pulling it so horribly that a throw, rather than a goal-kick, was the outcome. Even Boksic failed, the normally consummate Croat's control letting him down after Jonathan Greening had artfully scooped the ball through; the bobbles on the pitch clearly had no respect for reputations.
Amid Middlesbrough's spell of dominance, Liverpool had contrived only a shot from the excellent Nicolas Anelka, whom Hamann had picked out with a superb long ball, that Mark Schwarzer stopped. But Anelka had more to contribute and, when he bamboozled three men and delivered either an overhit cross or a pass of near-genius, the unmarked Hamann had plenty of time to amble in from beyond the far post, drop a shoulder and shoot. Though Schwarzer parried, Heskey put the loose ball in the roof of the net.
Riise arrived marginally too late to touch in Anelka's pass at the beginning of the second half and towards the end the left-sided midfielder, whose energy seems boundless, took Heskey's flick before smacking a beauty across Schwarzer and into the far corner. It was the sixth goal of Riise's first season in England. Southgate's first for Middlesbrough, from a cross by the substitute Carlos Marinelli, followed.
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