A typically eventful Anfield afternoon - three first-half goals, Michael Owen on the scoresheet and a sending-off - underlined the contrasting fortunes of two Premiership teams headed in very different directions.
Liverpool are clearly far from the finished product but Gerard Houllier does, in phases at least, have them playing impressively. For Middlesbrough, seven games without a win, a late consolation goal from substitute Phil Stamp could not conceal the fact that the foot of the table is appearing in their rear view mirror at an alarming rate of knots.
Gerard Houllier's heartfelt pronouncement that Owen and Fowler, both signed to long-term Anfield deals, will eventually prove to be the most productive front pairing in Europe is a contentious one - not least of all in the environs of Old Trafford these days. But every so often, there are days when the idea does not seem so far-fetched.
From the first 10 minutes, this looked likely to be one of those afternoons. The consensus that the pair are too similar to function in tandem is slowly but surely being removed. Yesterday, Fowler played a noticeably deeper role, often leaving Owen as a lone man up front. Once, in the 14th minute, Fowler almost played his partner through on goal with a near-perfect pass from the halfway line.
By then, Liverpool had already taken the lead with both strikers having apparently good claims to the goal. Owen won a ninth-minute corner, which Redknapp placed perfectly on the head of Ince 15 yards from goal. The captain's header was poor but fell fortuitously for Fowler at the far post, who in turn headed towards the roof of the goal where Owen, lurking at the left-hand post, helped to force the ball over the line.
The tone of the on-field post-mortem suggested Owen will take the credit and his 19th goal of the season. When McManaman, handed a sympathetic welcome from the Anfield crowd he is to leave behind this summer, drilled in a cross which Heggem mis-kicked in a good shooting position five minutes later, Middlesbrough's defence looked in tatters. But this, as the famous sign announces on the way down the tunnel, is Anfield and no Saturday afternoon here would be complete without defensive lapses from the home team. Gascoigne's neat feints and cameo runs proved problematic and Carragher's strong challenge on rampaging wing-back Gordon was vital, even if it drew penalty appeals from the visitors.
But the respite for Middlesbrough's own fragile defence was brief and the game was decided in the final minute of the first half when they conceded two goals. In the 44th minute Redknapp's typically intelligent play on the edge of the area resulted in him playing in the overlapping full-back Bjornebye whose far post cross was volleyed in spectacularly by his Norwegian countryman Heggem.
Ince made it 3-0 before the half-time whistle after McManaman's incisive left-wing run and a helping pass from Owen. The England midfielder, booked minutes earlier for a foul on Gascoigne which will earn him a one-match ban, strode into an inviting gap and finished confidently.
Middlesbrough's hopes of salvaging something from the game were increased slightly when Beck broke through but was tripped by Matteo and produced a theatrical flourish as he hit the ground, ensuring the Liverpool defender was handed a red card.
Goals : Owen (9 mins), Heggem (44), Ince (45), Stamp (86).
Half-Time : 3-0 to Liverpool.
Booked: Ince (40 mins).
Sent off: Matteo (64 mins).
Attendance : 44,384.
Team (5-3-2): James, Heggem, Carragher, Staunton, Matteo, Bjornebye, McManaman, Ince, Redknapp Owen (Gerrard 81), Fowler (Riedle 81).
Substitutes (not used): Song, Friedel, Harkness.
Referee : P. Jones (Loughborough).
League position: 5th (38 points after 24 matches).
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