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El Tel magic has Reds in a spin

THE story of Liverpool's season is maintaining a familiar plot.

Excellent wins and fine performances are followed by mediocrity.

Middlesbrough's ability to frustrate Liverpool has seen them go three years without a defeat to Gerard Houllier's side.

The Reds haven't even managed a goal against them in four games and over the whole 90 minutes, Liverpool had to be grateful for simply winning a point on Saturday.

A major second half improvement wasn't enough to justify claims that victory would have been earned.

Liverpool didn't perform at all in the first half and Middlesbrough were allowed to dictate the play for long periods.

Indeed, Terry Venables was a disappointed man his side didn't have a half-time lead.

Had Alen Boksic and Christian Karembeu's superb first half displays reaped dividends, few could complain.

Some fine defending by Stephane Henchoz and a save on the stroke of half-time by Sander Westerveld kept the scores level before Liverpool decided to start playing.

Boksic also earned applause from all sides of the stadium for a sublime turn and chip which was inches wide.

Venables' coaching skills earn acclaim and suspicion in equal measures in this country, but no-one can doubt the manner in which he has transformed a side heading for relegation.

Boro' were even unidentifiable from the team which beat Liverpool on Boxing Day, with Karembeu especially finding his form with his menacing breaks from midfield.

The surprising aspect of the Reds' start to the game was the lack of urgency and movement.

Qualities which had been so penetrating at Villa Park last weekend were absent.

Given the responsibility of setting the attacking agenda, Liverpool lacked ideas.

The much repeated calls for greater width in home games could be heard again.

Against well-organised defensive units, Liverpool continue to have problems.

It's unfortunate that Bernard Diomede's debut year in English football has been an injury-plagued one.

At the very least he'd offer the wide option which the team is crying out for on days like this.

When teams are packing defence, the onus is on Liverpool to find some inspiration and turn the game in their favour.

Jari Litmanen will do this, but he couldn't find the gaps which were so inviting in Birmingham.

He showed one or two delightful touches on his home debut, but on other occasions was visibly learning how little time on the ball you get in the English game.

That adjustment will be overcome with matches.

Boro' denied Liverpool the space and time to pass the ball with any fluency and the visitors were hardly stretched until a brief period of dominance after the break.

There were still a couple of openings which Liverpool could have benefited from in the early stages.

Emile Heskey toe-poked wide from 12 yards and Mark Schwarzer's first meaningful save came after Jamie Carragher's side-footer in the 26th minute.

It wasn't enough to make Tel unduly concerned.

Heskey limped off at the interval to be replaced by Michael Owen.

Sadly, both were described as doubtful for Wednesday by the end of the game.

The natural ability of Owen to get chances and cause mayhem in the opponents' box remains potent.

The extra ingredient of confidence has gone missing.

Within two minutes of Owen's arrival, Colin Cooper's backpass sent the striker clear, but the belief wasn't there and he scooped a shot over the bar.

He was then unluckily denied by Mark Schwarzer's legs on two occasions following opportunities which, to be fair, he had crafted for himself out of hopeful balls into the box.

With the doubters lining themselves up yet again to focus on those three missed chances, Houllier took the opportunity to point out what everyone suspected anyway.

Fitness wise, the muscle niggles in Owen's legs are not yet 100 per cent and mentally he is still not right.

But even at less than 100 per cent, he could have scored three.

The real Owen would have done so but no striker at the club deserves more support or patience than the 21-year-old.

His attitude and application is second to none and a few setbacks won't send him off sulking.

He has the ability to make amends and usually does.

A few training sessions this week will dictate if he has the chance to do so against Crystal Palace.

Let's hope so because Liverpool need him.

Liverpool's best spell of the game was, as usual, inspired by Steven Gerrard's emergence in the game.

At times he appeared to be a one man midfield.

Others would do well to learn from Gerrard's drive and consistency.

The good spell came to an abrupt end when Houllier made the substitutions many would have hoped for earlier.

It was ironic that in the search for more in attack, the chances dried up again and the Reds never really looked as though they would grab the three points.

By now, Boro had stopped attacking at all, retreating further into an ultra-defensive formation which, to their credit, worked a treat.

Liverpool: Westerveld; Babbel, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher; Barmby (Fowler 62), Hamann, Gerrard, Smicer; Litmanen (Murphy 73), Heskey (Owen 45).

Subs not used: McAllister, Nielsen.

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer; Fleming, Festa (Cooper 23), Vickers, Ehiogu, Gordon; Karembeu (Stamp 62), Ince, Okon (Mustoe 62); Whelan, Boksic.

Subs not used: Deane, Crossley.

Referee: Steve Dunn.

Booked: Cooper, Okon, Hamann.

Attendance: 43,042.

Star Man: Stephane Henchoz: Crucial challenges on Boksic ensured Liverpool at least kept a clean sheet.

Copyright  - Liverpool Echo

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