Three matches into Terry Venables' invigorating arrival upon Teesside and Middlesbrough's goal has yet to be breached. Another obsessive and resolute defensive display, allied to a goal stolen by Christian Karembeu late in the first half, will strengthen the belief that their Premiership status can be maintained.
Venables' shameless emphasis upon defending deep and in numbers, so negating Liverpool's counter-attacking style, contributed to an often dire contest that for the first hour was almost devoid of incident, but his tactical astuteness could not be faulted.
Gérard Houllier's young side was outwitted and the Liverpool manager pronounced himself stunned. "We kept the ball, they kept the result," he said. "They just sat back and waited. I have lost some games in my life but this was one of the strangest."
Houllier's conclusion that Venables was "a very lucky man" was an assessment that left Venables wreathed in smiles. Here was one old fox at least that had survived the Boxing Day hunts unscathed.
Middlesbrough clung on, close to exhaustion. For the home fans the sight of Gianluca Festa being sick on the pitch before the start of the second half was a symbol of their heroic resistance; for Liverpool, a suitable comment on their shortcomings.
If successive victories against Manchester United and Arsenal had convinced Liverpool that their old authority was about to be restored, their self-esteem was surely punctured by a display in which they had neither the wit nor the desire to make good an abundance of possession.
Victory at the Riverside would have put them third, but there were few signs of Champions League shrewdness. Stephen Gerrard was a rare exception, as he sought to rally Liverpool almost single-handedly and it was appropriate that their last attack saw him in the thick of things, desperately seeking an equaliser.
The Cleveland hills were lightly dressed in snow and an overnight frost had left the surface occasionally treacherous underfoot, but the chief betrayal lay in Liverpool's prolonged inactivity. One might have imagined that Liverpool spent Christmas Eve watching Independence Day and were waiting for the Americans to give them a plan of attack.
They were orderly enough, but half chances for Michael Owen and Marcus Babbel apart, they produced nothing of note as their own lack of wit played into Middlesbrough's hands.
Middlesbrough's goal was a blessed relief. Karembeu picked out Curtis Fleming on the right of the area. Fleming's shot possessed enough power to squirm away from Sander Westerveld and Karembeu dashed in to poke home his second Middlesbrough goal.
Venables' most potent attacking gambit has been to shake the complacency from Karembeu and the Frenchman might also have created a goal after 15 minutes when Noel Whelan, 12 yards out and with time at his disposal, pulled his shot across goal. Oh Noel, Noel, Noel...
Owen just had time to spurn two inviting opportunities - a header too high from Gerrard's low cross and a scuffed shot after Emile Heskey had teed him up - before he was replaced eight minutes into the second half by Robbie Fowler.
Fowler has been the subject of a £12m bid from Chelsea, but to accept that, on this evidence, would be a huge risk and his sprint and shot from 25 yards at least drew the Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer into action.
Gary McAllister's introduction had also brought Liver pool the veneer of a passing game but as much as Gerrard furiously drove his team-mates forward, there were too many under-performers - Nick Barmby, against his old club, prominent among them - for Liverpool to find a solution.
Middlesbrough (1) 1 - 0 (0) Liverpool
Schwarzer; Cooper, Ehiogu, Festa, Fleming; Ince, Karembeu (Hudson), O'Neill, Okon; Boksic (Deane), Whelan.
Westerveld; Babbel (Murphy), Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Biscan (Fowler), Gerrard; Barmby, Heskey, Owen (McAllister), Smicer.
Referee: S. J. Lodge (Barnsley)
Middlesbrough: Cooper (43) Whelan (90)
Liverpool: Carragher (44) Barmby (58)
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